Pioneering Fulltime Telework at EPA (Part 2 of 2)

Since my first installment of Pioneering Fulltime Telework at the EPA back in October of 2016, there have been a lot of changes across the federal government. For the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is likely that we will be doing more with less in the years to come – smaller budgets, smaller staff, and a smaller physical footprint.

Thomas Edison said: “The value of an idea lies in the using of it.” Fulltime telework has value – actually a lot of value – if it is used. The smallest expansion of fulltime telework at the EPA could save millions of taxpayer dollars while meeting and exceeding the business needs of the Agency.

Show me the money

For the last year and half, I’ve teleworked from Albuquerque, New Mexico for EPA’s Washington, DC, headquarters. Fulltime telework is first and foremost a cost-saving tool for the government. Congress passed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 and previous telework legislation primarily because telework saves the government and taxpayers money.

The government realizes immediate, direct benefits when an employee fulltime teleworks from a lower-paying locality. For example, I save the government $15,194 salary annually by working in Albuquerque, NM, vs. Washington, DC. The savings are as follows: $13,794 per year in salary dollars and $1,400 per year in transit subsidy. From a taxpayer perspective: same engineer, performing the same job, with the same level of commitment and dedication, for $15,194 less annually.

Further, the government realizes quantifiable indirect savings over time. These savings include the avoided costs of electricity and gas to heat, cool and power my government office in Washington, DC; decreased water consumption from restroom usage, and other cost savings. And, now that I no longer need my Washington, DC office, it’s available to others, or it allows the federal government to begin reducing its physical footprint, thus saving even more money.

Hundreds of millions in savings

If you assume that I am representative of an EPA employee demographic (i.e., mid-career engineer) and extrapolate to tens or hundreds of employees, you can see how fulltime telework has incredible value.

Let’s assume that ten Washington, DC employees began fulltime teleworking from a lower pay locality city, like Albuquerque, NM. In five years, those ten employees would save the EPA and taxpayers $759,700 in salary and transit subsidy costs.

Let’s assume that 100 Washington, DC employees began fulltime teleworking from a lower pay locality city, like Albuquerque, NM. Over a five-year period, the EPA and the taxpayers would save a whopping $7.6 million!

When you further consider that 100 employees actually represent less than one percent of the EPA’s current workforce (0.66% to be exact), you can see how a small increase in fulltime telework could save millions in salary dollars! Imagine if EPA encouraged just 20% of its workforce to fulltime telework, it would slash nearly 1% of its annual budget – some $45.6 million!

The examples above underestimate the savings because they only focus on salary and transit subsidy savings as opposed to the indirect costs that I mentioned earlier, like utilities like electric and water. When it comes to real estate savings, decreasing the physical footprint through fulltime telework has worked well at other federal agencies. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that expanded telework policies allowed the Agency to save $5.9 million in real estate costs from 2011 through 2014, according to a July 2016 GAO report to Congress on federal telework. During the same time period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also reported saving $334,000 in utilities and $2.3 million in transit subsidy costs.

So how much does it cost?

Fulltime telework saves the government money. There are very few expenses (if any) the government incurs in such an arrangement. In some instances, a fulltime telework employee may need to travel for official business, but that should be infrequent if we use the many virtual meeting tools in the federal government’s toolbox. Using my situation as an example, I could fly round trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Washington, DC over 45 times and still save taxpayers money by having my duty station in Albuquerque, NM vs. Washington, DC based on the salary differential alone.

On occasion, a fulltime telework employee may have to travel to a local EPA office for information technology (IT) hardware and software upgrades, mainly for security purposes. For me, I have combined IT hardware and software upgrade travel with other official business trips so there’s been no additional travel costs to the government solely related to my fulltime telework status. This may happen once or twice a year based on my experience, and could be reduced through technology improvements. Otherwise, there are very few (if any) administrative reasons to physically travel to a local EPA office.

But wait, there’s more…

So far, I’ve only discussed the financial benefits to the federal government – more appropriately, the taxpayers, but that not the end of this story. Fulltime telework employees contribute financially to the state and local economy, increasing economic development to areas outside Washington, DC.

As a ‘Burqueño (a native or resident of Albuquerque), my federal salary is taxed and spent here. Over the last year and half, New Mexico received the state taxes on my federal salary. My spouse and I further contributed to the state and local tax coffers when we purchased our home, a new vehicle, an RV (our first Airstream!), etc. Further, we have and continue to purchase taxable durable and household goods, groceries, hire contractors, etc. In other words, fulltime telework economically benefits the community, city, and state. In fact, we are constantly making donations to the state now that New Mexico recently started taxing online purchases!

Equally important, fulltime telework employees build capacity from within the state and local community. New Mexico’s largest industry is the oil and natural gas sector which happens to be my area of expertise. Simply by being “place-based” you get to know the industry, federal/state, and trade association representatives. I have developed professional relationships with many of these individuals over lunch, coffee or simply bumping into each other at a restaurant, farmers’ market, etc. Locally, I am now thought of a 'Burqueño who happens to work for the EPA.

Fulltime Telework at EPA

According to the July 2016 GAO report to Congress on federal telework, nearly half a million federal employees teleworked in fiscal 2015, a 70-percent jump over 2012 telework numbers. Despite this jump, the GAO found that agencies are not making the most of their respective telework programs. The GAO identified a number of barriers to successful federal agency telework programs, including:

  • managerial training,
  • managerial resistance, and
  • issues with documentation and data integrity.

When compared to other federal agencies, fulltime telework at the EPA remains an underutilized tool for a variety of reasons. Based on my discussions with management and staff, some of these concerns are around costs and accountability. I spent most of this blog discussing cost – more appropriately the cost savings. When it comes to accountability, I am much more accountable some 1,700 miles away from my manager than I was when I was 50 feet away from her office. With fulltime telework comes more transparency.

In addition to the accountability measures in place for all employees at the EPA, I perform a regular, bi-weekly check-in with manager, send a bi-weekly status/accomplishment report, keep a daily work journal on my calendar which accounts for how I allocate my time between time each and every day, etc. I welcome these measures and take them seriously, as I believe a higher-degree of transparency and accountability is warranted under such an arrangement.

Data-Supported Decision Making

In July of 2016, the GAO recommended that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) develop guidance for federal agencies on how to quantify the costs and benefits associated with telework. The OPM agreed with the GAO’s findings and said it would include cost savings questions in its 2016 federal agency telework survey. The OPM also agreed to develop more guidance for agencies on how to evaluate the costs and benefits of telework.

At the EPA, the union informed me that management frequently cites only the expense-side of the ledger and frequently overlooks the direct and indirect cost savings associated with fulltime telework. This is why there are only a handful of people at EPA fulltime teleworking. The selective use of telework cost data provides a strongly biased view that’s used to justify denials of most fulltime telework applications at EPA, according to the union. When employees cite projected costs savings in their fulltime telework applications, that information is frequently ignored, I’m told.

The solution, of course, is to accurately capture and use telework savings data.

Conclusion

The reality of fulltime telework is that it can offer significant cost savings while supporting states both economically and technically. To maximize the success of fulltime telework, management and employees need to realize the value and use it. Embracing fulltime telework – with necessary checks and balances in place – is an efficient and effective means of good government.

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. You can read part 1 of Jim's series here.