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Telecommuters say distance system works

August 09, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- While gas prices sap travel budgets, some federal employees are staying local and working from afar.

Recently, there's been more interest in the Hagerstown Telework Center, where government agencies can rent work space and equipment, Director Michael Pellegrino said.

But the wheels of bureaucracy sometimes grind slowly, and approval to let employees work outside the main office might take "anywhere from 24 hours to two years," he said. "That's the government machine."

Pellegrino said the center, which has 25 work stations in downtown Hagerstown, is at about 40 percent capacity.

The Jefferson County Telework Center in Kearneysvile, W.Va., which has 15 work areas, is about 52 percent full, Director Beverly Bolger said. That percentage got higher as gas prices did.

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Those two are among 14 telework centers in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

Using a desk, a phone, a computer and other electronic essentials, employees work on their own, a short ride from home.

Those whose agencies are headquartered in or around Washington save money on gas and avoid hours of travel time.

Pellegrino said employees might work, for example, four days in the office and one day at the telework center.

"Some say that if it wasn't for the one day, they couldn't do the job," he said. "They couldn't stand it."

National Park Service budget analyst Peggy Switzer said she was on the verge of taking another NPS job to avoid the grueling days.

"It's approximately 90 miles one way," she said, noting that her morning commute would start at about 4:45. "You're totally exhausted when you get there."

She said her boss asked what would keep her in her job. She suggested telecommuting. Her request was approved.

The change two years ago made a vast difference for Switzer, who lives off Sharpsburg Pike and cares for five grandchildren.

She works four 10-hour days in Hagerstown. Every other Thursday, she travels to Washington.

Lynda Roark of Boonsboro, a purchasing agent for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., has telecommuted for about 2 1/2 years.

She works at the Hagerstown center each Wednesday and Friday.

Roark said her agency was receptive to telecommuting. She's one of about six or seven NIST employees in her division whose workweek includes time in Hagerstown.

For Roark, her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son also are a reason she prefers to stay close to home. She's expecting a third child soon.

"I can have lunch with them," she said. "I couldn't ask for anything else."

Of NIST's 2,500 full-time employees, about 10 percent telecommute, spokesman Michael Newman wrote in an e-mail.

NIST employees "who have demonstrated acceptable performance and who have access to a telework site that meets the requirements of NIST policy" may work from a distance, Newman wrote.

"The work must be portable and tasks must be project-oriented and measurable. NIST managers are encouraged to allow employees to participate in this program to the maximum extent possible."

About 48 percent of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's workforce telecommutes, spokesman Ruth Ann Nyblod wrote in an e-mail.

The agency's work often lends itself to telecommuting, said Danette Campbell, the senior adviser for telework

Some people, called "hotelers," work from home four days a week and have a reserved space at PTO's Alexandria, Va., office one day a week, she said.

Limitations are greater, though, for PTO's use of D.C.-area telework centers because of the bandwidth needed for large patent and trademark documents.

Only the Hagerstown center, which has FiOS, or fiber-optic service, is acceptable, she said.

The Hagerstown center rents space to a few people who have their own business, Pellegrino said.

Almost all of the tenants, though, are part of the federal government.

He said the agencies that use the Hagerstown center include the departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy and Health and Human Services.

Some Fort Detrick employees are there, too.

For $25 a day in Hagerstown, employees get broadband Internet access; a dedicated phone line; faxing, copying and scanning; and amenities such as a kitchenette and a conference room.

The center is locked, but tenants have 24-hour access.

Most metro D.C. telework centers charge between $20 and $30 a day. One in Woodbridge, Va., charges $49.

The center in Frederick, Md., charges $30, and the one in Kearneysville charges $38.50.

Bolger, the director in Kearneysville, said tenants get their own cubicle or semiprivate office, digital phone system, computer loaded with XP Office 2007, high-speed Internet access on a T1 line, Web teleconferencing and other amenities similar to Hagerstown's.

"We have all of the essentials for them to get their job done," she said.

For Bob Stockslager of Leitersburg, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, the Hagerstown center helped him get back to work faster after surgery about four years ago. He wasn't allowed to drive and was stuck at home.

"I was bouncing off the wall watching Ellen and Oprah all day," he quipped.

He convinced his doctor to let him drive a little - eight miles to Hagerstown instead of 70 miles to Harrisburg, Pa.

Teleworkers say they stay connected to their offices through phone calls, e-mail and computer instant messages.

Otherwise, they have a quiet environment, and can focus.

"I feel like I'm so much more productive now," Switzer said. "There's no interruptions."

Bolger said some bosses are uncomfortable letting employees out of their sight.

The proof is in the work, Stockslager said.

"You've got a job to do," he said. "You either produce or you don't."

Resources for telecommuters



Information about telework centers is available at www.telework.gov.

The Hagerstown Telework Center can be reached at 301-745-5600.

The Jefferson County Telework Center can be reached at 304-728-3051, ext. 252.

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