Washington power outage tests telework plans

Damage to underground electrical cables forces employees at three agencies to work from home or take administrative leave.

This story has been updated to include comment from GSA.

A power outage in Northeast Washington on Wednesday put three agencies' telework plans to the test.

About 50 emergency personnel at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission worked from home or from an alternate site while power was out at the agency's main building on First Street, spokeswoman Mary O'Driscoll said.

Some of the more than 1,100 nonemergency employees at FERC's Washington office also telecommuted on Wednesday, but it's unclear how many employees could not work from home and so were forced to take administrative leave, the spokeswoman said.

FERC restored email and desktop virtualization systems enabling telecommuting early in the day, she said.

Fifty-one percent of FERC employees are unable to work outside the office because of an electronic or other type of barrier and 23 percent more do not telework by choice, according to a 2010 Office of Personnel Management report on the government's telework capacity, suggesting that many of FERC's Washington staffers were unable to do their jobs Wednesday.

The power outage, which was caused by damage to a number of underground electrical cables, also affected the General Services Administration's main building and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

All three federal buildings are located within about half a mile of each other near First Street and between H and P streets in Northeast Washington.

The electric utility provider, Pepco, said Wednesday afternoon it expected to have power restored by midnight.

ATF Spokesman Scot Thomasson said he knew some of the "couple of hundred" employees at the bureau's Washington office were telecommuting Wednesday, but added he wouldn't be able to provide firm numbers until officials are back in the building. Some employees went to the office in the morning to pick up laptops and other devices that would allow them to telecommute, he said.

GSA Spokesman Gregory Romano said he wouldn't have firm numbers on how many of the GSA employees who work at the agency's Northeast Washington complex worked from home during the power outage until Thursday.

"In the past, GSA employees have teleworked in large numbers when unable to work in the office due to [inclement] weather, power outages, etc.," Romano said. "We expect this situation to be no different. Telework has proven to be an effective tool to maintain continuity of operations in these situations."

About 23 percent of GSA employees have a telework barrier and 19 percent more do not telework by choice, according to OPM's 2010 telework report. That report does not list figures for ATF.

According to the report, nearly 6 percent of the federal workforce -- or about 114,000 employees -- worked remotely during fiscal 2009, the most recent year for which numbers are available. About 67 percent of those employees teleworked one or more days per week.