Managing Telework – Travel and Inclement Weather

In part III of the series on managing telework, the author addresses the questions that can arise with respect to telework and inclement weather.

According to “WorldatWork” the teleworking population in 2010 was 26.2 million.  This is slightly more than 7.5 million fewer teleworking employees than in 2008.  WorldatWork has been tracking telework since 2003. 

During this current recession, we have seen a lot of focus on productivity, and employer costs.  Part of the decline can be attributed to the increased unemployment, as well as employees feeling that they should not be out of sight of their managers.  Interestingly, while the total number of teleworkers has decreased, the number who telework, more than one day a week, has increased by nearly 12 percent between 2008 and 2010.

In WorldatWork’s Telework 2011 report nearly one-third of the teleworkers viewed flexi-place as a reward or benefit.  Kathie Lingle, WorldatWork Executive Director, says “it is a business power tool that has been associated with impressive employee engagement, productivity, and profitability.”  These are attributes in Government service that are not given sufficient consideration, and one that is turning against public workers in the current debt debate.

An employee who travels to his/her official duty station from home before the start of a regular workday and returns to his/her home at the end of the workday is engaged in normal commuting time, which is not travel time.  However, travel time spent by an employee as part of his/her principal work activity, e.g., travel to and from a job site other than their official duty station during the workday is work time and must be counted as hours worked.

There are many nonexempt employees who report to some alternate duty site while teleworking.  Such local travel is time worked.  Time spent checking emails or using a cell phone before they leave their home may be work time if it amounts to a substantial amount of work.  (You can define substantial or ask the IRS!) 

In a recent court case, (Kuebel v Black and Decker, No 10-2273, 2nd Cir.)  the court rejected the “continuous workday rule” because in this particular case, the court found that the tasks Mr. Kuebel performed were not required to be completed before or after he commenced his field work. While the decision in this case favored the employer, that may not always be true since one circuit decision is not case precedent on another circuit court.

It may be very advantageous for the telework agreement to spell out when a person’s duty day begins.  For people working under a flexible schedule arrangement that may be more difficult.  However, under a flexible time program, people in many agencies are required to sign-in and sign-out at the end of the day.  That could easily be accomplished in a telework environment where the employee is required to notify their supervisor by email when they are on the clock, and when they finish each day.  These are the specific internal controls that unions detest, yet they are in the interest of all concerned for a well run telework program to function.

Normally, the travel to and from a person’s residence to an alternate duty site is also reimbursable for mileage, unless your agency has some travel policy or coverage in a union agreement that a person must subtract from the total distance travelled their normal home to office miles. 

There are many nonexempt employees who report to some alternate duty site while teleworking.  When this occurs transportation costs for use of a personal vehicle (POV) are reimbursable.  Likewise, if the employee’s telework site is their permanent duty station, then all local travel by POV is reimbursable.  Approving local travel vouchers is not a perfunctory exercise.  Supervisors must scrutinize these claims to ensure they are accurate and correct for payment. 

Another glaring question is what the statis is of a teleworker who is scheduled to work at home on the day there is some inclement weather forcing their office to close early or not to open at all.  A union will say this employee is to receive administrative leave like anyone else – really??  Again, telework is a privilege and not a right.  Managing government operations is no different than running a business.  While we do not necessarily have a revenue stream, there is a cost side, and the decision to close an office may be prudent because of weather, but is the teleworker adversely affected by the snow storm?  Unless the storm has knocked out electricity to the area, the teleworker is not adversely impacted and should continue to work, and this should be clearly stated in the agreement. 

Analogously, if a winter storm forces the early dismissal or closure, does the person who is not working that day because it is their scheduled day off on a compressed work schedule get “an in lieu of” day – NO.  The same reasoning should apply to a telework situation.  You can expect a lot of pushback by the unions on this one.

One agency years ago provided every employee with a notebook computer.  If a winter storm occurred, it allowed employees to take a sufficient amount of work home with them to remain productive for the remainder of the day, and the next day if necessary.  This allowed people to get home safely before the roads became treacherous, while preserving productivity. 

Likewise, if a major winter storm was predicted for a given day, employees and supervisors were instructed to plan to work from home that day.  Being able to call-forward phones, and to link-back into the agency’s main computer, people were able to remain productive without risking a dangerous commute.  In fact, the only time the agency would shut down was if the governor ordered a state of emergency requiring people to stay off the highways.  This approach was a constructive use of telework in a COOP scenario. 

Telework can be a benefit, but it must be crafted wisely whereby expectations are clear and understood by all parties.  Absent that, problems will arise and a considerable amount of time and energy will be expended, at taxpayers’ expense.

About the Author

Since retiring in 2011 after nearly 40 years of federal service, Bob Dietrich has been active in training supervisors and HR staff on FLSA and FMLA. He has a three-day course that he can bring to your agency, and he may be reached through the website.