The House, in a 290-131 vote Wednesday, approved a bill that would create government-wide regulations for teleworking and instruct each federal agency to come up with policies to promote telecommuting. The Senate has passed similar legislation.
The federal government was once regarded as a leader in telecommuting, but efforts to increase those working outside the office have stalled in recent years, a result of such factors as managerial resistance and security concerns.
The Office of Personnel Management said there were about 103,000 employees teleworking at least once a month in 2008, up slightly from the previous year but down from 140,000 in 2004.
The 2008 figure represents slightly more than 5 percent of the total federal work force of nearly 2 million, or 8.67 percent of those eligible for teleworking.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., the lead sponsor of the bill, ticked off what he said were the numerous benefits of teleworking: helping recruit and retain a better work force; improving worker morale; reducing traffic congestion and the government's carbon footprint; and ensuring that the government functions during emergencies.
"There's nothing magic about strapping yourself into a metal box and driving 25 and 35 miles a day to a place that's sitting before a laptop when you can do it at home," said Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, whose northern Virginia district includes many government workers.
The legislation directs the OPM to issue regulations on teleworking and requires that agencies come up with policies permitting teleworking for up to 20 percent of the hours worked over two weeks.
Agencies must designate a telework managing officer, provide training to employees and ensure that there are no distinctions between teleworkers and others in performance appraisals.
The White House Office of Management and Budget is instructed to issue guidelines to prevent improper uses of official time or resources by those working outside the office.
Requiring each agency to take responsibility for promoting teleworking "is definitely a plus, but we have more work to do," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that works to improve government service.
He noted that the Obama administration has set a goal of having 150,000 teleworkers by 2011, and his organization would like to see 500,000 teleworkers by 2014.
The legislation also seeks to better integrate teleworking into Continuity of Operations Planning, procedures for keeping agencies operating during emergencies, and Stier cited the example of last winter's snowstorm that paralyzed Washington and shut down much of the federal government. "We need a government that is capable of serving the people at all times," he said.
Sarbanes said the government lost some $71 million worth of productivity every day during the blizzards, while adding that those losses would have been $30 million a day higher if some people had not been able to work from home.
Republicans blocked action on the bill last May, saying a projected $30 million in administrative costs over the next five years should be paid for. This time they were able to attach a provision requiring that agencies show that teleworking initiatives will result in savings.
The bill is H.R. 1722.