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Baltimore Plans Return to the City Offices in 2024

The city will spend $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act money in an effort to help city employees return to the office early next year, almost three years since many were asked to work remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

(TNS) — Baltimore will spend $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act money in an effort to help city employees return to the office early next year, almost three years since many were asked to work remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mayor Brandon Scott announced last month that city employees who have been working remotely will be asked to return to the office for at least three days a week. Beginning Jan. 2, employees will be able to telework for a maximum of two days each week.

The push affects about 2,000 employees of the city’s 14,000-member workforce who have been working remotely for the majority of their work hours.

The federal funding assistance, which was discussed this week by the Baltimore City Council’s Health, Environment and Technology Committee, will be spent to upgrade conference rooms across city offices to be capable of hybrid work, said Todd Carter, the city’s chief information and digital officer.

The rest will pay for laptop computers and other equipment to upgrade city employees who have been using their personal equipment while working from home, Carter said.

Officials are still working to figure out how many employees are using their personal equipment to work for the city, Carter said. When the pandemic began in 2020, Baltimore didn’t have enough equipment to distribute for remote work, he said, and supply chain issues made it difficult to buy new equipment at first.

Some employees took their desktop computers home, Carter said, calling it a “hodgepodge” of equipment. The city will survey employees, he said.

“In a lot of cases we don’t know how many employees were using their own equipment to log into systems,” he said. “They can do that securely. But that’s the reason why some employees have used their home equipment.”

Quinton Herbert, Baltimore’s director of the Department of Human Resources, told the council that city employees were surveyed while working from home, and “by and large enjoyed telework.” They thought they could be productive while working from home, Herbert said.

Additionally, the survey showed supervisors thought productivity didn’t suffer during telework, Herbert said.

Still, members of the City Council said they have fielded increased complaints from constituents while city employees have worked from home. Councilman Robert Stokes said he hears from constituents who cannot get a city employee to take their calls.

“COVID is over with,” he said. “I have constituents who email, who leave phone calls, three weeks, three months, and they don’t get no answer.”

“I think it’s good that people can telework, but when you don’t have people answering the phone for constituents in the city, how do we now tell people they can work (from home) two or three days?” he added.

The issue of employees working remotely may prove to be a topic of discussion on the campaign trail as the mayoral race approaches. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, a Democrat who is running to reclaim the job, said during her September candidacy announcement that she would order all city employees to return to City Hall. Scott’s proposal to have employees return was rolled out later that month.

Leaders within Scott’s administration said during Wednesday’s hearing that city employees need to acknowledge receipt of emails and calls by the next day.

City Administrator Faith Leach said meeting that standard may require additional training for city employees and the expansion of technology to answer calls remotely. City officials said they are looking to broaden the city’s use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) which allows calls to be made online instead of on a traditional phone line.

“It is of the utmost importance to me we are returning emails, that we are answering phone calls,” Leach said.

Scott’s administration has also announced plans to update the city’s telework policy as the push for employees to return to work continues. Antiquated portions, like a requirement that city employees submit a picture of their home workspace, will be removed, officials said.

An updated policy is expected to be submitted to the city’s Board of Estimates later this year.

©2023 Baltimore Sun, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.