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Opinion: Telecommuting Should Work for State Employees

Before the pandemic, remote work — spurred by the demands of young, tech-savvy professionals who didn't see the point of being tied to a particular location — was gaining traction in the private sector.

As the public sector is increasingly turning to telework as it seeks to improve how it recruits and retains employees.
(TNS) — Before the pandemic, remote work — spurred by the demands of young, tech-savvy professionals who didn't see the point of being tied to a particular location — was gaining traction in the private sector.

The pandemic accelerated acceptance of the concept and pushed it into the public sector. Over the past two years, countless employees on the state's payroll made the transition to working from home as a way to tamp down the spread of COVID-19 variants.

Now that we're in a "new normal" phase, state government leaders have to contend with the inevitable resistance to return to the office. Many state employees, having adapted and proven remote work is eminently doable with enough technological support, can't be blamed for wondering why they should have to show up in person when virtually has worked for weeks/months/years.

The issue is now front and center, thanks to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's recent directive to Cabinet secretaries to assess the effectiveness of remote work and consider changes to maximize operations. Some New Mexico state employees are being told to come back to the office, setting up conflicts.

While the Governor's Office says no specific date has been set for any broad changes to an existing telework policy, a state Department of Health official recently told employees they would be expected to show up for in-person work at least 50% of the time. In addition, State Personnel Director Ricky Serna said remote work would continue to be authorized on a case-by-case basis with a supervisor's approval but not put in job postings as "advertising the use of these reporting options suggest they are guaranteed as a condition of employment," according to a copy of the memo obtained by the Journal.

Dan Secrist, president of the local Communications Workers of America union, said unions negotiated the existing telework policy with the Lujan Grisham administration in June 2021 and any policy overhaul without union approval would be a contract violation. He also said CWA is preparing a complaint with the state's Public Employees Labor Relations Board after some union-affiliated employees were told to return to in-person work. "If you're going to rescind telework, you've got to do it on a case-by-case basis and you've got to show a legitimate business reason," he said.

Both the state and union positions make sense. New hires shouldn't be under the impression remote work is the default option. As for the scores of employees who found a new work/life balance, the state must revisit its remote work policy carefully — taking into consideration whether working remotely is affecting taxpayers' services.

Overall, about 40% of all state employees reported doing at least some remote work — even if just for a few hours — during the state's most recent pay period, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.

The high vacancy and turnover rates in state government jobs makes finding the balance between ensuring a return for taxpayer dollars and allowing a flexible workplace for state employees all the more important. Ditto if there's another spike in COVID transmission rates.

The telework policy currently in place allows state workers to work remotely from home occasionally or entirely, depending on their job duties. Agency heads can rescind or modify an employee's telework agreement with adequate notice. It also requires that employees who are allowed to work remotely be able to report to their normal worksite on short notice. This gives state leaders some discretion about which of the state's 17,000 rank-and-file workers are in positions that require an office presence and which jobs can include worksite flexibility, which can help attract and retain employees. Remote work also shrinks every worker's carbon footprint and reduces wear and tear on roads.

We appreciate the governor's emphasis on customer service. If bringing workers back to the office improves it, that's reason enough. But it's important to remember a lot of workers rose to the occasion and proved they could do the job from anywhere if properly supported. It's a delicate balance the state needs to weigh carefully.

© 2022 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.