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New Mexico State Remote Work Comes Under Scrutiny

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, some New Mexico state employees who have been allowed to work from home are being told to come back to the office, and remote work is no longer being touted in job postings.

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(TNS) — More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, some New Mexico state employees who have been allowed to work from home are being told to come back to the office, and remote work is no longer being touted in job postings.

But the push to make state workers return to in-person work has not gone totally smoothly as some employees have gotten used to working from home and others say they have been exposed to COVID-19 after coming back to the office.

Micheal Peterson, an information technology employee for the state Department of Health, said he was recently told to return to work in person, even though he's spent most of his 20-year career working remotely. But there was a hitch when he looked into the instructions.

"Since I've been working remotely so long, the place I work at no longer had office space for me," said Peterson, who lives in Bayard and is the Communications Workers of America vice president for the Department of Health.

Some state employees, such as David Dikitolia with the Department of Information Technology, say they don't mind returning to the office.

"There's certain things I like to do face to face," Dikitolia said while waiting for the Rail Runner commuter train in Santa Fe.

"Coming back in person, I feel like it restores your work-life balance," added Dikitolia, who said he sometimes logged up to 20-hour workdays at home during the initial stages of the pandemic.

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.

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 told state employees and agency heads in a recent memo that telework and alternate work schedules would no longer be mentioned in postings for open jobs.

While he said remote work would continue to be authorized on a case-by-case basis with a supervisor's approval, he added that "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.

'It's really inconsistent'

Dan Secrist, president of the local Communications Workers of America union, said unions negotiated the telework policy with the Lujan Grisham administration in June 2021.

As such, any blanket overhaul of the policy without union approval would be a contract violation, he said.

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," Secrist told the Journal.

"It's really frustrating at this point," Secrist added. "It's really inconsistent."

The telework policy 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 allowed to work remotely be able to report to their normal worksite on short notice.

While the telework policy remains in place, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Cabinet secretaries are, in fact, assessing how effective remote work has been and could make changes to "maximize" their operations.

"The governor's priority is a state government that does everything in its power to serve the public," Sackett said. "We are also committed to creating a supportive work environment — the governor is deeply grateful to the thousands of state employees who work every day to serve New Mexicans."

Hard decisions loom

The push to get New Mexico's roughly 17,000 rank-and-file state employees back to work in person comes as many state government agencies are dealing with high vacancy and turnover rates.

As of March, there was a 22.6% average vacancy rate for job positions across state government for the just-ended fiscal year, according to State Personnel Office data, and only 61% of newly hired employees made it through their probationary period.

It also comes as the latest COVID-19 variant continues to spread rapidly across the state — with the statewide test positivity rate at 16.7% as of last week.

As state officials struggle to find the balance between providing public services and ensuring a flexible workplace for state employees, hard decisions loom on both sides.

For instance, Peterson said some state employees moved to other locations within New Mexico — with their supervisors' approval — during the pandemic and are not looking to relocate once again.

While waiting for the Rail Runner train this week, one state worker said many employees want to keep working from home.

But another said he volunteered to go back, saying a year of working remotely was enough.

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