Measure would establish 'telecommuting' centersWASHINGTON -- Federal...


Measure would establish 'telecommuting' centers

WASHINGTON -- Federal workers could save time and money, and do a favor for the environment as well, by swapping long daily commutes for shorter trips to satellite offices near their homes, according to advocates of "telecommuting."

A bill introduced recently by Maryland Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, would establish five telecommuting centers in Maryland and Virginia for employees who live too far away from Washington to commute comfortably. Employees in different agencies would share office space nearer their homes, using computer modems, fax machines, telephones and video terminals to remain in touch with their central offices.

"The immediate benefits [of telecommuting] include reductions in traffic congestion, fuel consumption and air pollution, while enhancing productivity, lowering operating costs and allowing more time to be spent with one's family," said Mr. McMillen when he introduced the Telecommuting Act earlier this month.

Under the legislation, employees and their agencies would choose how much time the worker would spend in the satellite office, ranging from full time to only a few hours per week.

The bill also would create a federal telecommuting office to coordinate such a program in both the public and private sectors. The cost of the program is estimated at $5 million.

The idea of telecommuting is not new. The Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration have been looking into it for some time, according to Brad Fitch, a spokesman for Mr. McMillen.

But the legislation would provide a central coordinating office and a pilot program, Mr. Fitch said.

Western Maryland, Annapolis and the Eastern Shore are prime areas for satellite centers, according to Mr. Fitch and Marsha Fuller, a telecommunications consultant who helped on the bill.

The proposed measure mandates that the centers be established in areas with high unemployment rates, Mr. Fitch said. The choice of location would be based in part on the local lTC government's ability to supply fiber optic infrastructure and trained workers, he said.

Ms. Fuller, who lives in Hagerstown, said she conducted an informal poll of 84 of Hagerstown's 3,500 federal employees. They logged 2.6 million miles annually driving to work and back, she said.

According to a national study, over $23 billion would be saved annually if 10 to 20 percent of the work force engaged in telecommuting, Mr. McMillen said.

The savings would include $17.8 billion in productivity, $3.7 billion in energy costs, $1.2 billion in pollution savings and $500 million in highway repair and other infrastructure costs, he said.

The plan's potential for saving fuel and curbing pollution is illustrated by the facts that cars cause 40 percent of the country's air pollution, and an estimated 35 percent of passenger vehicle driving is work-related, Mr. McMillen said.

Telecommuting also could "breathe new life into rural America" by allowing its residents access to a wider variety of jobs, Mr. McMillen said.

But Mr. Fitch said the bill has a good chance of passage because federal agencies have expressed interest in telecommuting for some time, and because it is believed that it will save money in the long run.

OPM chief resigns

Office of Personnel Management Director Constance Berry Newman announced last week that she is leaving OPM for a job as second-in-command at the Smithsonian Institution.

Federal employees unions have expressed regret at Ms. Newman's decision and have urged President Bush to appoint a successor who will follow closely in her footsteps.

John N. Sturdivant, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, commended Ms. Newman for using her background as a government employee to effectively address problems in the federal work force. He credited her for helping pass the white-collar pay reform law and establishing problem-solving committees at OPM.

The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest museum and research complex. Ms. Newman will become the chief operating officer, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the institution.

Ms. Newman, who has headed OPM since 1989, is scheduled to leave in July.

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