Federal government closes: Why can't they all work from home?

All D.C.-area federal agencies were closed Monday after the snowstorm last weekend. Shutting down the federal government costs $100 million a day in lost productivity.

Jason Reed / Reuters
Cars drive through the snow along Pennsylvania Avenue NW near the Capitol Building (L) in downtown Washington Monday.

Talk about a budget freeze: The storm they call “Snowmageddon” has halted the federal government in its tracks.

With roads inside the Beltway impassable, and trains and buses running a minimum schedule, and schools closed, and crowds having snowball fights in Dupont Circle, and yeti wandering K Street (we made up that last one), all D.C.-area federal agencies were closed Monday. They might close Tuesday, as well.

There’s another storm due Tuesday night, so it is possible that the government shutdown will last until the D.C. government unveils its secret snow-removal strategy, otherwise known as “spring.”

But closing down the federal government costs $100 million a day in lost productivity. Why can’t bureaucrats, you know, telecommute? Like everybody else does in this Era of the iPhone.

The answer to that is, they do. At least, some of them do. About 9 percent of eligible federal employees have approved telework agreements that allow them to work from home, according to an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) report from August 2009.

That’s a little over 102,000 people. And Uncle Sam would like that figure to be higher.

“They encourage it,” says one federal employee with such an agreement, who requested anonymity. He’s tired of his name being misspelled.

For instance, the personnel office of the agency this employee works for has sent out a series of messages in recent days suggesting that everyone who has signed up to work via computer should do so.

It’s the government, though, so signing up for telecommuting is kind of an involved process. You’ve got to apply (tip: don’t tell them about working from coffee shops), get your supervisor to sign on, and so forth.

Also, the Feds are coming a little late to the whole working-in-your-pajamas party, so they have yet to catch up to the private sector in this area. OPM is fully aware of this, and they’re trying to change as fast as they can.

Telework clearly aids productivity, said OPM director John Berry at a conference on the subject last September.

“It needs to be part of the ethos of an office. No meeting or conference call should be canceled because someone is working from home,” he said.

There is a catch, however. On days the federal government shuts down, teleworkers may have to labor anyway, while their commuting brethren get the day off.

“Agencies may require teleworkers to work when the agency is closed,” notes OPM’s handbook on emergency closure procedures.


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