ANNAPOLIS – Telework centers that have shortened the commute for hundreds of Maryland workers will begin losing their federal subsidies this year, sending the centers scrambling for funds to survive.
“The federal government’s goal is that we’re all able to be self-sufficient,” said Mary Bray, program director for the Hagerstown Telework Center. “Every center will be going off and looking to operate in different ways.”
But so far, only one of the six Maryland centers that was started with federal funding is close to becoming self- sufficient.
When the centers begin losing federal assistance — the first will be cut-off at the end of fiscal 1998 — it’s possible that some may fold if private or governmental agencies do not fill workspaces, said a General Services Administration official. But Jim Aden said the GSA hopes the centers will be able to stand on their own by then.
“Congress provided the seed money,” said Aden, coordinator for the telecenter project in the Washington, D.C., area. “The goal of the project was to provide an opportunity for the federal workers to really experiment with teleworking.”
Between 1993 and 1996, Congress gave GSA $11 million to create telecommuting centers around Washington. They are remote workstations that let long-distance commuters do their jobs at a site closer to their homes.
Maryland has six telecenters — in Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, and in Reisterstown, Frederick and Hagerstown — with two slated in Bowie and White Oak. Virginia has five centers.
Aden said about 400 people now use the region’s telecenters.
While the sites differ, they generally have personal computers with e-mail and Internet capabilities, faxes, laser printers, copiers and videoconferencing, set in an office environment.
Telecommuters can have their own offices or work in cubicles. Currently, government or private agencies pay $100 a month for a workstation that is used five days a week for eight hours a day.
But as federal funding dries up, those rates could rise. The GSA is considering a gradual increase in lease rates charged to government agencies, raising them to $375 in 1999 and about $500 in 2000, but Aden said no final decision has been made.
Telecenter directors and GSA officials are also looking at other options, which include luring more private companies to fill spaces.
The Frederick Telework Center is the closest to standing on its own. It leases space to entrepreneurs and those looking for temporary workspace, for example, in addition to having the National Institutes of Health, the Transportation Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department as tenants.
Federal money for Frederick is scheduled to dry up in December. The Hagerstown center is funded through April 1999 and the still-unopened White Oak and Bowie centers will be funded through November 1999. All the other centers in Maryland will lose funding Sept. 30, 1998.
Bray said the Hagerstown center will seek grants from the state or county government, and it may apply for non-profit recognition and try to attract more private companies.
Danette Campbell, director of the InTeleWorkNet Center in La Plata, said she will also market to private industries and to people seeking temporary office space.
Last year was the first time the federally subsidized telecenters sought private tenants, though federal agencies have priority for the spaces.
Complicating the picture for the federal centers are new, privately owned and operated centers.
Executive Office Club Inc., for example, plans to add telework centers in Reston, Va., and Bethesda to the one it runs in Washington. The chain, with prices ranging from $7.95 an hour to $399 month for workspace, plans to eventually open 50 centers across the nation.
Mark Wiatrowski, president of Executive Office Club, said that telecenters will be an important change in the way we work.
FIND/SVP, a research and consulting service, reported that telecommuting grew from 4 million people nationwide in 1990 to 11.1 million people last year. Telecommuters include people who work from home, sometimes called “alternative officing,” and those who work at the telework centers.
One telework brochure suggested that any commuter who spends over 30 minutes driving to work and whose jobs can be done by telephone or computer should consider teleworking.
Wiatrowski said telecommuters prefer the telecenters because there are fewer distractions than at home, where kids, housework, pets and limited space can all get in the way of work.
“They choose the center because it may be a more productive workplace,” he said. “Many homes are not suitable work environments,”
Also, putting computers or other office supplies in each telecommuter’s home can be costly for businesses, Wiatrowski said.
While the deadline for the government-supported centers is approaching, officials said they are confident they will be able to become self-sufficient, as was originally intended.
“Our hope is that by that point, enough people will be using them and continue to be using the telecenters,” Aden said.
Despite the uncertainties, Campbell said she is not worried about the future of the La Plata center.
“We believe we’re not going to have any trouble filling these spaces,” Campbell said. “There are lots of options for us.”