Federal employees comprise 48% of teleworkers in the Washington DC Metro area

By: John Townsend, AAA Mid-Atlantic

WASHINGTON, D. C. (Thursday, January 16, 2020) ––More Federal agencies are slashing telework opportunities for their workforces, according to recent news accounts. As a sign of the times, the number of employees teleworking in the Washington metro area reached a plateau in 2019 “at about the same rate as in 2016,” the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) found. 

In 2019, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department reportedly stripped telework provisions from its union contract. What is more, the federal agency was also expected to “require employees to commute at least four days per week,” reports “Government Executive.” Proponents of teleworking say it “offers employees more flexibility, improves morale, saves on commuting costs and reduces traffic and pollution.”

The latter is especially true for the Washington metro area, which already suffers from the third-worst traffic congestion in the entire nation, as well as some of the nation’s longest traffic delays. The e-work cutbacks will exacerbate the daily grind.

Ominously, five in six HHS employees surveyed said they may consider leaving the federal agency if telework is restricted. Reducing remote working options for federal workers in the region will not only impact the federal workforce. It will also affect every commuter and every transportation mode in the Washington metro area. The region generates 3.1 million commute trips a day, or 13.5 million commute trips per week, along its roadways and its regional bus and rail public transit systems. “Federal employees spent less time teleworking in 2017 than they did during the previous year,” reports the Federal News Network. Those extra traffic delays will cost the Washington metro area millions of dollars each year.

“Even the slightest shrinkage in teleworking will add more traffic on area roadways and freeways and reduce elbow room on other modes of transportation across the Washington metropolitan area,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “One-third of workers in the Washington metro area work from home regularly or occasionally. Around 14 percent of area teleworkers are employees of state or local governments across the region, while almost half of the local telecommuters (48 percent) work for the federal government. Like nothing else in the world, teleworking has changed the nature of the commute in the Washington metro area, and it has reduced congestion on area freeways and arterials.”

As proof, “When a worker decides to telework, they are effectively eliminating commute trips from the transportation system that would have occurred on the day(s) when they telework,” explains the TPB. Interestingly, telework impacts how we get around, and who gets around. Regionally, the share of weekday commute trips eliminated by the use of telework or by compressed work schedules increased from 5.7 percent in 2007 to 9.7 percent in 2019, reveals the 2019 State of the Commute Survey Report by Commuter Connections. Teleworkers hail from across the Washington metro area. Even so, “35% of District of Columbia residents teleworked, the same percentage as for Maryland (35%) and Virginia (35%) residents.”

Yet the use of telework/compressed work schedules leveled off across the Washington metro area in 2019, reports the TPB. It isn’t just HHS putting up roadblocks to telework.  An alphabet-soup of other cabinet departments and federal agencies or organizations are also following suit in some shape, form or fashion.

The list includes the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Social Security Administration.  Many of those agencies are headquartered in the nation’s capital, which experiences 1.9 million vehicle trips each workday. Total ridership on Metro soared to nearly “80 million passengers” during the first quarter of FY 2020, reports WMATA. 

On the region’s Commuter Rail systems “the combined average weekday ridership approaches 60,000 passengers; about 40,000 each day for MARC and about 20,000 each day for VRE.” 

Nearly two-thirds of area workers drive to work alone. About 27% of all weekday trips on Metro are made by federal workers. Trimming telework options will cause gridlock to worsen across the Washington metro area, commuters dread. Congestion robs each area commuter of an extra 102 hours per year (or 248 million hours cumulatively across the region). It also comes with a big price tag: an additional cost of $1,840 per local commuter (for a grand total of $4.6 billion for the region), reports the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). 

The workaday Washington metro area boasts 361,009 federal workers and more than 400,000 contracted workers. Federal workers are evenly spread out throughout the region. More than a million workers telework or telecommute in the national capital area, according to the 2019 State of the Commute survey:

  • In the past dozen years, the number of employees teleworking region-wide has grown from 456,000 workers in 2007 to 1,073,000 employees in 2019, the survey says.
  • Federal agency employees telework at a much higher rate than the regional average, and they comprise 48 percent of workers who telework in the Washington metro area.
  • The 35% telework percentage represents a steady growth over the percentage from the 2007 survey when only 19% of employees teleworked. The percentage growth also equals a more than two-fold growth in the total number of teleworkers from 2007 to 2019.
  • More than four in ten respondents with household incomes of $140,000 or more teleworked, compared with only about 5% of workers with incomes below $30,000, 15% of workers with incomes between $30,000 and $59,999, and 25% of respondents with incomes of $60,000 to $99,999.

In January 2019, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released its “latest telework status report” to the U.S. Congress. The status report revealed that while telework eligibility remained stable across the federal government, “federal telework participation dipped government-wide in 2017.”

In fact, “various factors resulted in decreased telework participation,” reports the OPM. Drilling down, the OPM survey also ascertained: “From fiscal years 2016 to 2017, telework participation decreased slightly from 22 percent to 21 percent of all employees, and from 51 percent to 48 percent of eligible employees. Situational telework has increased and remains the most common form of telework participation.” 

In July 2018, National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) National President Tony Reardon fired off a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II, detailing the results of the survey of 1,600 HHS employees.  The survey found:

  • Five out of six workers said reducing or eliminating telework would be a factor in deciding to leave HHS.
  • More than half of HHS employees said that reducing or eliminating telework would result in increased time and cost of commuting, reduced productivity and an insufficient number of work stations.
  • 54 percent of respondents have been teleworking for at least five years with some more than 10 years.

“In 2017, about 43 percent of Federal employees were eligible to telework—one percentage point higher than reported in 2016,” reports the OPM. The Telework Status Report also noted: “Half of the teleworkers engaged in situational telework to some degree over the course of the fiscal year—an increase of 2 percentage points from the fiscal year 2016.” In all likelihood, the cutbacks in teleworking and telecommuting options in the national capital region could amplify the amount of lost time and wasted fuel in bumper-to-bumper traffic on area arterials and freeways during the weekday AM and PM peak travel hours warns AAA Mid-Atlantic. It will likely also increase the headcount of daily riders on Metrorail, Metrobus, as well as MARC and VRE.

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...