USDA to give some employees more time to adjust to telework changes

The Agriculture Department’s decision to reduce how often employees can telework has been more difficult to implement for certain offices.

Despite concerns raised by employees, the Agriculture Department says changes to its telework policy have taken effect yesterday.

But USDA is extending the timeframe by an extra 30 days for some employees  to adapt to the changes.

“All employees who are able to comply with the requirements of the new telework directive are encouraged to do so this pay period,” stated an internal memo obtained by Federal News Radio. “If you need some additional flexibility due to an extenuating circumstance, we encourage you to discuss your situation with your supervisor, who can approve additional telework days for employees on an infrequent basis.  We ask that employees and supervisors make every effort to comply with the new directive in full no later than the start of Pay Period 4 on Feb. 19.”

The “extenuating circumstances” may include the need to update an employee’s transit benefits and other changes.

An Agriculture spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Radio: “In some mission areas and agencies, the volume of people teleworking was so high that managers have been given time, not to exceed 30 days, to bring all employees into compliance with the new policy. In addition, conditions created by the shutdown may also have warranted extra time.”

The Office of Personnel Management’s annual report to Congress on telework showed more than 32,000 USDA employees teleworked at least one day a week in fiscal 2016. Of that 32,000, more than 9,600 employees teleworked at least three days a week.

USDA requests employees to update their telework agreements no later than Feb. 12.

“Employees who are telework eligible but choose to opt out of participation in the telework program will also need to complete the new agreement,” the email stated. “Employees with a home official duty station do not need to complete a new telework agreement.”

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue updated the telework policy to limit the number of days an employee can work outside the office to one day a week from basically unlimited.

Perdue told employees in January that some of the changes he’s initiating as part of this OneUSDA initiative will be “drastically different from the old way of doing things, and that’s OK.”

USDA’s decision to change the telework program didn’t sit well with some employees.

The recent email seems to recognize that the new policy will take time to change the culture.

“I understand that many of you still have questions about implementation of the new telework directive. Office of Human Resource Management is developing a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document to help address many of these questions, and we will let you know as soon as that FAQ is available,” the email stated.

Federal News Radio received a copy of a letter supposedly sent to Perdue from a USDA employee asking him to reconsider the changes to the telework program. Multiple requests to the USDA press office seeking confirmation of the letter or at least confirmation that Perdue received similar letters were not answered.

The anonymous letter makes the case for reconsideration around a number of factors, including quality of life issues, environmental benefits and the overall impact on the workforce.

“Many of us started teleworking over 15 years ago when the program was first offered. Teleworking has expanded since then and the ability to have some of our life back created an incredible amount of goodwill and loyalty. There was nothing many of us wouldn’t do for this agency — we worked over the weekend and after scheduled hours, took our work on vacation — as a show of gratitude for USDA’s efforts to promote work/life balance,” the letter states.

The employee writes that the change in policy “feels like a punishment and insinuation that we aren’t doing our work. That alone is degrading and demoralizing. Many of us have been working in short-staffed offices for years and have picked up the slack without complaint, yet now we are having a major benefit taken away.”

The employee tells Perdue that if there are issues with telework, they should be handled on a case-by-case basis or within each program area.

“If the privilege of teleworking isn’t being used properly by some, their immediate supervisors should address the issue, just as they address any other underperformance issue. Supervisors are in the best position to know whether or not an employee is getting their work done. If management would like employee to have more in-person time for certain events or meetings, they could require that all staff be in the office on particular days.”

While Perdue is well within his right as a secretary to change the agency’s telework policy, USDA has, several times over the past few years, been recognized for its commitment to work-life balance issues.

The latest recognition for USDA came in January from the National Academy of Public Administration when it released its new report Strengthening Organizational Health and Performance in Government that included a USDA case study.

“Following the 2013 governmentwide shutdown, USDA accelerated its efforts around improving employee engagement, with a particular focus on effective leadership, an area that showed room for major improvement. As part of a Secretarial Initiative on Cultural Transformation, new strategies were developed to improve employee engagement, empower employee voices and recognize best practices,” the case study states. “In order to empower employee voices, Employee Advisory Councils were established, where employees interacted with and provided direct input to their leaders. Work-life balance was one of the important issues surfaced, which resulted in an effort across USDA to improve employee participation rates in telework and flexible work schedule agreements.”

Additionally, Perdue’s decision to limit telework leaves others confused. One USDA employee sent Federal News Radio a release from 2003 when Perdue was governor of Georgia.

Governor Perdue announced new “work away initiative” for state employees.

“Work Away will improve the quality of life for thousands of Georgians who spend countless hours commuting over long distances or on traffic filled roads,” said Gov. Sonny Perdue in the 2003 release. “This program will reduce traffic and increase the productivity of employees while defining state government as a model for high-tech business practices.”

Perdue also highlighted the opportunity for alternative work schedules like four 10-hour days, or flexible schedules with starting and ending times that are less typical.

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