By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun
10:41 PM EST, January 16, 2014
When Greg Ham first became eligible to work from home under a new program at the Environmental Protection Agency a few years ago, he didn't jump at the chance.
"I wanted home to be separate from work," said Ham, 57, who lives in Baltimore but works as an environmental cleanup coordinator at the EPA's Environmental Science Center at Fort Meade.
Management was promoting telework. And when Ham's field work began to decline and his office work picked up, he decided to give it a shot — and found cutting nearly two hours of commuting out of his daily routine "a real nice timesaver."
He now works two days a week from his home in Govans and three in the field or at Fort Meade — a balance that is becoming increasingly common in the federal workforce.
Across Maryland and the country, a growing number of federal employees are working at least some of the time from home, as agencies expand eligibility under a 2010 law and more workers take them up on the offer.
The Office of Personnel Management reported last month that the number of workers eligible for telework increased by 49 percent from 2011 to 2012, the number with telework agreements in place grew by 84 percent, and the number who had actually worked from home rose by 24 percent.
More than 209,000 employees teleworked in September 2012, the OPM reported, up from 169,000 the previous September. More than 2.1 million employees participated in telework programs at some point in 2012.
Rep. John Sarbanes, who wrote the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, said the new data "redeems" lawmakers' efforts to "really encourage" federal agencies to make telework a priority.
"When you're nudged and pushed to explore the opportunities for a different kind of work arrangement, you end up discovering that your office can be more productive," the Baltimore Country Democrat said.
In its report, called the "2013 Status of Telework in the Federal Government," the OPM found several agencies have saved money and created better operations plans for periods of hazardous weather.
In an internal assessment, the OPM found that 933 employees who teleworked in 2012 cut 2.4 million miles from their commutes, used 104,000 fewer gallons of gasoline, saved $274,500 at the pump and shrank their carbon footprint by 578 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Also in 2012, 13 agencies saved on office space, 10 on utilities, 15 on human-capital costs and five on training, the OPM reported. Four agencies spent less on transit subsidies, and 19 saved money through a reduction in employee absences.
In its 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, a separate study, the OPM found about 75 percent of respondents were satisfied with the teleworking programs offered at their jobs, and 27 percent had participated in them.
In the telework report, the OPM said many agencies still were trying to scale up their programs, and many remain unable to keep track of cost savings.
Still, many are nearing a point at which they should begin seeing results from their implementation of telework. Sarbanes said the benefits were likely to grow in coming years.
"All the evidence is that there is plenty of head room left within these agencies to further develop telework," he said. "I think within 10 years, you will have seen a track record of pretty steady increases in acceptance of telework and, in many instances, an embracing of it by these agencies."
At the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, more than 4,000 employees participated in telework programs in 2012. At the EPA, including its center in Fort Meade, 8,300 participated.
As programs expand and more funding is saved, Sarbanes said, agencies will be able to redirect funding to other areas where they need it.
"There ought to be an opportunity to reap the benefit," he said.
But if savings become large enough, he said, it might also make sense to return funding to the Treasury.
"In lean times, where everyone has to be fiscally prudent, I think taxpayers have a right to expect the federal government will be employing techniques that the private sector is using to be more nimble," he said.
Sarbanes said telework makes the government more flexible during emergencies and shutdowns.
"A threat of government shutdown can create disruption, and telework is something that allows you to handle disruption more efficiently and more effectively," Sarbanes said.
Ham, at the EPA, said already being wired to telecommute helped him on the first day of the shutdown. Although workers were ordered not to do their jobs, he was required to fill out a time sheet and handle a few other administrative tasks that first morning.
Being able to do that small amount of work from home saved him a commute to and from the office.
At home, Ham has a small office space in the corner of a bedroom, with a draft table, computer, phone, printer and scanner, near a west-facing window that offers ample afternoon sunlight. From here, he can access documents at the office.
Most days, he has everything he needs.
"I tend to be more relaxed on those days. I can get a lot done because I'm more focused, don't have the stress of the commute," he said. "I'm just as productive, if not more so, at home."
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