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Telecommuting and Employment Law

In California in the 1970s employers and employees began exploring telecommuting as an alternative to the regular work schedule with employees physically traveling to and from a set off. Part of the goal was to reduce traffic and save the earth. That’s still one of the goals, but it’s not just an old hippie fad. Big companies and big government have embraced telecommuting, and millions of employees swear by it. Telecommuting involves working from just about anywhere besides a company’s main offices — including a workers’ home, clients’ facilities, and employer-owned satellite offices, and even from a hotel room while on the road.

Setting up a telecommuting program
Companies implement these programs for a host of reasons besides keeping employees happy or saving money on office space. It also can be a way to help employee save on the cost of gas when prices are high and to have a better work-life balance. Some organizations may use telecommuters as a way to stay in operation during natural disasters, epidemics, and other emergencies. Others may view it as a key recruiting tool or a way to keep employees closer to customers.

The U.S. government, for example, began to formally look into telework with a pilot program in 1990. Uncle Sam wanted to see if it could help recruit, motivate, and retain employees while cutting costs for sick leave, facilities, and transportation. The pilot program showed telework arrangements worked well and provided significant benefits when implemented with the right employees — namely, proven high performers.

Use of telecommuting grew. In late 2000, Congress enacted a law requiring federal agencies to set up policies for implementing telework and to dramatically increase the number of off-site workers. The movement toward telecommuting became more crucial after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks underscored the need for business continuity plans for emergencies.

Another reason for heightened interest in telecommuting is simply that it’s become more cost-effective because of cheaper telecommunications and information technology — particularly the broadband connections that support high-speed Internet service. Surveys show that a significant number of people telecommute.

Like any other workplace initiative, a telecommuting program requires careful forethought and planning to succeed. To understand and intelligently address the many issues that can arise with these programs, it’s important to understand the different kinds of telecommuting, the benefits of telecommuting, and how to capitalize on those benefits without falling prey to the potential downsides to off-site employees. Supervisors need to be trained to manage employees who are out of sight and monitor their performance.

Telecommuting and employment laws
Like any other workplace program involving there are always employment laws to be considered. With telecommuting, one of the biggest issues can be monitoring the time worked by non-exempt employees to avoid overtime or other wage and hour problems.

Telecommuting also might be a considered as a possible accommodation for a disabled employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Other employment laws to consider when developing and maintaining a telecommuting program include the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), state workers’ compensation laws, workplace safety, and employee privacy laws.