Swine Flu: Agencies Scramble to Update Telecommuting Policies

The Office of Personnel Management announces new effort to increase telework in the federal government.

by / April 30, 2009

With the World Health Organization declaring that a swine flu pandemic is "imminent," some government agencies are taking a second look at their teleworking policies. Discussions are taking place at federal, state and local levels.

Peggy Ward, the chief information security officer of Virginia and internal audit officer of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, said representatives from state agencies will meet this week with Bob Crouch, head of the Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, to discuss what measures, including telework, might be taken to combat the swine flu.

"We've been meeting fairly regularly for a couple of years now for preparing for a pandemic, and we have been obviously been escalating and promoting telework as part of pandemic preparedness, as well as just part of good business nowadays," Ward said.

By law in Virginia, 20 percent of eligible workers must be telecommuting by 2010, said Ward. A teleworker in Virginia is defined as someone who works out of the office at least once a week or 32 hours per month, she said.

"One thing we've done, too, is to go back and reassess what our essential functions are, because in the event of a [Hurricane] Katrina, you know what your emergency response functions are, and you know functions that can stand down. But in a pandemic, which goes on over a fair amount of time, you can't stand down some things," Ward said.

Virginia has implemented leave policies that allow state workers to sign up for mission-critical duties in case of an emergency, she said.


California's Telework Plan

David Fleming, the telework program consultant for California's Department of General Services, said Thursday that discussions are under way at the department level about how California state government might utilize telework if the swine flu outbreak worsens. California has a formal telecommuting policy in place. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency this week to coordinate its health-care response to the flu. The California Department of Public Health identified 39 confirmed or probable cases of swine flu as of Thursday morning.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced Wednesday it will enhance telework policies for the federal government, in part because of the swine flu. The announcement came after Government Technology and other media reported this week that 60 percent of federal agencies had included telework in their continuity of operations/emergency plans in 2007, according to a December 2008 report from the OPM.

On Tuesday, the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that promotes telework in the federal government, called on all organizations to adopt telework programs to slow the spread of swine flu.

OPM Director John Berry said the new effort will combine elements from two bills that have already been introduced in Congress: H.R. 1722, the Telework Improvement Act of 2009, sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md.; and the Telework Enhancement Act of 2009 from Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

The OPM's plan would form an advisory group of telework program managers, direct agencies to write policies that would follow guidelines from the advisory group, and ensure broad-based training for managers and employees.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 109 confirmed cases of swine flu in 11 states as of Thursday. Epidemiologists are concerned that the influenza -- a new strain that originated in pigs -- could cause widespread illness and even death.

Matt Williams Associate Editor