Pioneering Fulltime Telework at EPA (Part 1 of 2)

graphic courtesy timedoctor.com

graphic courtesy timedoctor.com

Last summer, my spouse, who works for U.S. Department of Justice, was promoted and reassigned to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like many couples, we discussed and debated whether this move made sense for our individual careers and our life together as a married couple. I feared that my twenty-year career with EPA, an Agency with a mission I loved and worked so hard to further, was coming to an abrupt end.

Around the same time, a new collective bargaining agreement between the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entered into effect for all employees in the bargaining unit, expanding telework options to include fulltime telework. I explored the notion of fulltime telework with my management and the union. I am happy to say that I am writing this blog from Albuquerque, New Mexico as an EPA Headquarters employee assigned to the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA).

 
EPA and OECA are saving over $10,000 in salary on an annual basis for the same quality of work, skill set, etc.
 

As one of the first EPA employees to apply for and obtain fulltime telework status, I unknowingly became a pioneer in fulltime telework. Over the past ten months, I learned a number of valuable lessons that merit sharing with staff and management. I share my fulltime telework experiences to foster the Agency’s goal of making EPA one great(er) place to work! Further, my experiences may be helpful to staff contemplating fulltime telework and provide management with clear examples of how fulltime telework can help both management and employees better meet their needs.

In the fall of 2015, we sold our residence in Arlington, Virginia and arrived to our new home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since EPA does not have an outplaced headquarters office (e.g., OAR has outplaced headquarters offices in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina), a regional office, or a lab/field office of any kind; I work from home every day. My Albuquerque workday is very similar to my former workdays in Washington, DC. I participate in conference calls; attend virtual meetings; draft, edit, and read documents; check and send emails; participate in online training; certify/attest my time; experience computer patches with mandatory reboots; and all the features of life in the office. The biggest difference in my workday is that the only unannounced guests have four legs, not two!

What is Teleworking Really like?

So what is fulltime telework really like? That is the question I get most often from colleagues, friends, and family. Here are some topics of interest that should give you a feel for what fulltime telework is really like:

1.  Salary and Locality
Your locality pay will be adjusted if you relocate outside of your metropolitan area. For me, my locality pay decreased given that the cost of living in Albuquerque is less than that of DC.  EPA and OECA are saving over $10,000 in salary on an annual basis for the same quality of work, skill set, and responsiveness.

2.  Salary and State Income Taxes
Your state income taxes may increase or decrease depending on where you will live. For me, New Mexico income taxes are less than Virginia income taxes, which netted me a few extra dollars per pay period. Check your earnings and leave statement to ensure that the Office of Human Resources (OHR) adds the state/locality taxes and deletes the old state/locality taxes. If you do not take this corrective step, you will need to file a refund petition with the state tax authority. This was an issue for me for multiple pay periods.

 
In terms of accountability, I attest my time every pay period like we all do in PeoplePlus and have regular check-ins with my management.
 

3.  Commuting
As mentioned, I work out of my home office so I no longer have a commute. You will need to cancel your transit subsidy. In doing so, I no longer receive $120 per month, thus saving tax payers approximately $1,400 annually. Moreover, my commute does not rely on fossil fuels of any kind!

4.  Home Office
Unless otherwise negotiated with your manager, you will be largely responsible for equipment and supplies beyond your laptop and mobile phone (if one has been provided to you). EPA typically saves money by not funding things like: office furniture and equipment (i.e., desk, chair, book cases, file cabinets, etc.), additional computer monitors, printers, scanners, fax machines, ink cartridges, telephones, internet service, routers, cleaning services, trash/recycling services, HVAC, etc., for teleworkers. In the last ten months, I spent over $1,500 to equip my home office, which averages to $150 per month. Many of the items I purchased should last for years, so the $150-per-month average should drop over time.  Keep in mind, however, that your office could provide equipment and supplies to you.  If they have extras around the office, you can be authorized to take this extra equipment with you to your telework location.  Discuss it with your supervisor.

5.  Information Technology
Despite the ease with which we dismiss our IT infrastructure and support, it is quite good compared to where it has been in the past. Using your government-issued laptop, you can access the network remotely, including your network drives, access all the necessary systems for time and attendance, travel, employee express, video conferencing like Skype for Business and Adobe Connect, SharePoint, etc. When something doesn’t work right, EZTech can remotely connect and diagnose and/or correct the issue. When it comes to fulltime telework, here are some helpful IT-related tips:

  • Ask for temporary administrative rights so when you arrive at your destination, you can install your local printer. You can also have EZTech remotely connect to your EPA computer to install your printer for you.
  • If you connect to a wireless home network, prior to EZTech remoting in, connect a network cable (Ethernet cable) from your router to your laptop, rather than connecting remotely. This will greatly assist the speed in which EZTech can remotely assist you and will increase the download speed of new/updated software.
  • When you call tech support, always explain that you are a fulltime-telework employee working remotely from another state and time zone. I have scheduled appointments with technicians who told me they showed up at my empty office in William Jefferson Clinton South.
  • When it comes to updating your EPASS identification badge, you will need to travel to an EPA badging office (for example, headquarters, region, or field office). Take your current EPASS badge and your EPA-issued laptop to the EPA badging office. Once your new EPASS badge is issued, connect your EPA-issued laptop to the EPA network and then log in. This allows your new EPASS badge and your computer to work together while on the EPA network. Once you log in successfully, your new EPASS badge and EPA-issued laptop will allow you to access the EPA network remotely from your duty station.

6.  Travel
Under federal travel regulations and policy, EPA headquarters employees are covered by a blanket travel authorization when traveling within 50 miles of their duty station. For me, that was William Jefferson Clinton South building. Given that my duty station is my residence, travel within 50 miles of my Albuquerque residence is also covered by a blanket travel authorization. Travel outside of the 50 mile radius of my duty station requires a travel authorization. Of course, travel of any kind must have prior management approval.

7.  Accountability
In terms of accountability, I attest my time every pay period like we all do in PeoplePlus and have regular check-ins with my management. Beyond this, I voluntarily submit a biweekly report to my management of what I accomplished during the pay period. And, I opened my Microsoft Outlook calendar to my management so they can see my meetings, calls, etc. I also use a combination of my MS Outlook calendar and maintain a hand-written journal of my work projects.

 
While there are quantifiable benefits to the employee and agency from telework, there are social and cultural aspects of fulltime telework to consider as well.
 

Benefits of Fulltime Telework

Fulltime telework is a great option to consider if your work is portable and you are faced with a situation similar to the one my spouse and I faced last fall. While many perceive that telework only benefits the employee, that notion is simply not true. An August, 2016 GAO report (GAO-16-551) looked at telework benefits and costs across six agencies, including EPA, and highlighted the following benefits to the government and/or the employee:

  • improved continuity of operations;
  • decreased overhead/real estate costs;
  • improved recruitment/retention;
  • increased productivity and decreased absences;
  • reduced transit costs to both the agency and employee; and
  • improved work/life balance.

While there are quantifiable benefits to the employee and agency from telework, there are social and cultural aspects of fulltime telework to consider as well. It is the social and cultural aspects of telework that I have found to be the most challenging dimensions of fulltime telework. If you’re a person who really dislikes interaction with people, then your adjustment may be easier than mine.  But for me, having my coworkers and office friends some 1,700 miles away was a difficult adjustment – no more office lunches, grabbing coffee, celebrating birthdays, new babies, weddings, retirements, holiday parties, etc.

In Part 2 of this post, I will discuss the social and cultural dimensions of fulltime telework. Please check back with the NTEU Chapter 280 blog frequently to catch Part 2! 

Jim Kenney is a Chapter 280 member working for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at EPA headquarters. He teleworks full time from New Mexico with his two dogs and two cats. He welcomes your feedback at kenney.james@epa.gov.