Local telework centers closing doors

No more funding available

Friday, March 4, 2011

The telework center in Waldorf will close no later than March 31, while a similar facility in Prince Frederick closed Monday. The two centers, which together serve 64 workers, are operated by the College of Southern Maryland but are funded largely by the U.S. General Services Administration, which has decided to stop supporting them, said Jill Wathen, telework director for College of Southern Maryland.

The Waldorf and Prince Frederick centers, as well as one in Laurel also administered by CSM, are among 13 in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia that GSA has decided to cease funding. Ninety-five percent of the users of CSM's centers were federal employees, with workers from two government contractors comprising the remainder, Wathen said.

GSA's relationship with CSM goes back to 1993, when the college opened a telecommuting center in Waldorf with federal funding. The Prince Frederick and Laurel centers opened in 1997, Wathen said.

She said she doesn't know for sure why workers chose to use the centers instead of heading to their offices, but "my personal opinion is it's based on the traffic congestion, or maybe the hassle of getting to [Washington,] D.C., from that location, but that's only my opinion," Wathen said. "Our Waldorf center has always done very well, but we have a lot of people in Prince Frederick as well, too, based on the population of commuters in the area as well as how difficult it is to make that commute, it all has a bearing on use of the center."

The economics of having to provide two offices — one on-site, one remote — as well as increasing acceptance of working from home are factors in the closure of telework centers, surmised Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition, a pro-telecommuting nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

"Another thing that I see is, when you take a look at what really got this whole thing on track, [it] was ‘Snowmageddon.'" Wilsker said. "People couldn't leave their homes. That's what got Congress, all of a sudden, to jump on the [working from home] bandwagon. They're looking at this for disaster recovery, for snow-related incidents, and if you can't get out of your house you can't get to a telecommuting center."

A GSA telework center in Manassas, Va., had only one or two people there when he visited it recently, Wilsker said. By contrast spotty broadband Internet access in Southern Maryland could be a factor behind the centers' relative popularity here, he said.

"It's going to be an interesting situation. I don't know how much thought went into it, but again the situation is a lot of people just don't have a conducive place to work at home. I think the No. 1 thing is … that there are a lot of people who are now working from home and since they are, [employers ask,] ‘Do they really need a telework center?'" Wilsker asked.

CSM is trying to find alternatives for clients who don't want to make the trek to work, including putting them in touch with businesses that rent office space, Wathen said. Others have taken to working from home despite potential pitfalls like distraction and isolation.

Throughout the District area, less than one-tenth of a percent of federal employees use the telework centers, according to a statement e-mailed by Maryanne Beatty, an employee of GSA's Public Buildings Service. At an average annual cost of about $3 million to run the centers, it costs about $10,000 per employee to provide access to a telecommuting center, she wrote. Cumulatively, CSM's three centers cost about $625,000 annually.

The closing of the CSM centers also means the future is uncertain for Wathen, who is applying for other jobs at the college, and the centers' two other workers, college President Bradley M. Gottfried said.

"That's always a tough one. When you close down a program, what do you do with employees who have been doing a good job for you?" Gottfried asked.