State hopes to expand telecommuting

Donna Seresin was driving in circles every day.

Her job at the Department of Environmental Protection required that she travel each day from her home in New Haven to clock in at her office in Hartford — about a 45-minute commute.

She would spend a few minutes at the office, then get back in her car for a 90-minute drive, asking herself, “Why am I doing this? This is insane.”

Seresin, an engineer with DEP, was required to go to her office before heading off to her appointments in Fairfield County, which is a short commute from her home, but a long backtrack from her office.

Luckily for Seresin, the DEP decided in 2009 to begin taking advantage of an existing law that would enable her to work from home before and after her appointments in Fairfield County.

But her application took more than three months to be approved by the Department of Administrative Services– a bureaucratic obstacle state employee unions have blamed for low participation in the state’s telecommuting program. Last fiscal year, 252 of some 55,000 state workers telecommuted at some point in the year; in the previous 12 months, the number was 140.

According to Telecommute Connecticut, a consultant that helps employers set up work-from-home programs, about 9 percent of Connecticut residents working in private industry telecommute on a regular basis, and one-third work from home occasionally. They estimate this takes nearly 60,000 cars off Connecticut roadways on an average day.

State Comptroller Nancy Wyman and Matt O’Connor with Connecticut State Employees Association/SEIU Local 2001 say the state should be able to achieve a similar level of participation.

The major obstacle has been the requirement that DAS approve telecommuting rather than the agency or department leader.

“It takes so long to get anything through the Department of Administrative Services. As the head of this office I should be able to allow them to work from home,” Wyman said.

A new law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell last week gives agency heads the authority to decide who can telecommute. It’s great news for Wyman, who recently faced a three week delay in getting permission for an employee unable to travel because of surgery to work from home.

“That’s a long time when we needed his job done. It was ridiculous because he could work at home,” she said.

Another obstacle is awareness, as only a handful of state agencies currently allow employees to telecommute. A 2009 Connecticut Business and Industry Association survey found that 30 percent of the 300 state businesses questioned offer employees the option to telecommute at least one day a month.

Peter Gioia, an economist for CBIA, said businesses overwhelmingly support telecommuting for a multitude of reasons, including recruiting and retention of employees, cost savings and increased productivity.

State agencies are slowly starting to pick up on the trend. DEP had 33 employees telecommuting the first year it offered the program, and spokesman Dennis Schain expects participation to rise “as people become aware it’s an option and now that we have the ability to make the decision.”

The state has also contracted with Telecommute Connecticut for about $500,000 a year to help agencies transition into a telecommuting world. So far, they have helped DEP and handful of other agencies to implement the proper training and human resource policies and to assess what technology would be needed for workers to safely telecommute.

“Our job is to make sure they are all aware this option exists and how to move forward,” said Jean Stimolo, program manager for Telecommute Connecticut.

Stimolo said with this new law Connecticut ranks as one of the best states for offering telecommuting options.

“It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It all depends though on the motivation and who will be interested,” she said.

A spokesman for DAS said there is no way to know if more people will begin telecommuting under the new law.

“The differences in agencies’ telecommuting interest levels is very likely to be attributable to the nature of their work,” said Spokeswoman Donna Micklus in an e-mailed statement. “Many state agencies perform work that requires the employees to be on-site … Other reasons why it may not be appropriate for state employees to work at home involve issues such as many employees working with confidential information, the security of which might be compromised if brought out of the office; materials may be too voluminous to effectively bring things home to work on a regular basis; the cost of providing the necessary equipment to employees who want to work at home, etc.”

All that being said, O’Connor is still hopeful 10 percent is a realistic goal.

“This is pretty historic. There is a lack of interest completely right now because it’s being poorly implemented. This law helps change that,” he said. “DAS shouldn’t be the only one holding the key to who gets to telecommute.”