Telework Rules for Federal Employees

The Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration have been advocating telework—also called telecommuting or flexiplace — for many years, for reasons including energy and office space savings, employee quality of work life and agency emergency planning.

Nearly half of federal workers are formally eligible to telework but only about half of those do so even sporadically, however, for reasons including resistance by managers — and, in some cases, reluctance by individual employees concerned that absence from the worksite would hamper their careers. Most teleworkers work remotely from home, although some work from other locations such as local telework centers. About half of those who telework do it only on a situational basis, such as due to severe weather or a special assignment. Typically, regular teleworkers do so only several days per month.

The increasing use of mobile electronic devices has somewhat blurred the definitional lines, however.

Presumed Eligibility for Telework

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 required agencies to establish telework programs for which employees are presumed to be eligible unless they meet certain exceptions, including a potential decrease in employee or agency performance, jobs that require daily handling of secure materials or daily duties that cannot be performed remotely, and employees who have been disciplined for certain reasons including unexcused absence for more than five days in one year.

The changes also added guarantees that employees will not be treated differently due to telework for purposes including performance evaluation and career advancement opportunities, requires training, and sets standards for information security, among other changes. In addition, a series of reporting requirements brought greater scrutiny to telework programs. Detailed guidance under that law is at www.telework.gov.

Also, OPM changed the definitions of agency operating status during emergency situations such as severe weather closings to explicitly include unscheduled telework among the options.

Policies vary by agency but typically have certain common features:

  • Employee participation is voluntary. Employees who work on telecommuting schedules sign agreements with the agency regarding the terms, including performance evaluation, work hours, allowable uses of government equipment and similar issues.
  • Those who work from home must have a safe and adequate place to work off-site that is free from interruptions and that provides the necessary level of security for government property. They may not use duty time for providing dependent care or any purpose other than official duties.
  • The government may place government owned computers and telecommunications equipment in employee homes or at other alternative workplaces, but the government retains ownership and control of hardware, software, and data. Such equipment is for official use only, and its repair and maintenance are the responsibility of the agency.
  • Flexible workplace arrangements are not a right or condition of employment. Management may end an employee’s participation in telecommuting if the employee’s performance declines or if the program is detrimental to organizational needs. Also, the employee may end participation at any time without giving cause.

Continuity of operations—One emphasis of telework is in continuity of operations (COOP) planning, which is an organization’s internal effort to ensure that capabilities exist to continue essential functions in emergencies. Presidential Decision Directive 67 requires federal agencies to develop “Continuity of Operations Plans for Essential Operations” to ensure enduring constitutional government and continuity of government operations. Subsequently, many federal agencies have begun to integrate telework into their COOP planning, making arrangements to transfer work to have it performed from employee homes or telework centers.

Dependent care—OPM guidance states that telework is not meant to be a substitute for dependent care. Employees may not telework with the intent of or for the sole purpose of meeting their dependent care responsibilities while performing official duties. While performing official duties, teleworkers are expected to arrange for dependent care just as they would if they were working in the office. However, in some circumstances such unscheduled school closings, managers may allow previously unscheduled telework for the part of the day when the employee would not be occupied with dependent care.