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Pandemic tests boundaries of remote work in New Mexico

Associated Press

SANTA FE – State Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart has returned to New Mexico and is self-quarantining as a precaution against coronavirus transmission after working remotely for several months from a home in Philadelphia, a state spokeswoman said Friday.

Ryan Stewart

Stewart’s extended stay with family outside the state has prompted questions about the boundaries of remote work as much of the state’s workforce is urged to work from home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Judy Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office, said Stewart continues to use remote technology to conduct meetings with staff and meet other responsibilities while in isolation. New Mexico currently requires travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days when entering or returning to the state.

In an advisory opinion Friday, the New Mexico State Ethics Commission said there is no residency requirement for Cabinet officials and that the Governmental Conduct Act only prohibits a remote-work arrangement “that either inhibits the performance of statutorily defined duties or otherwise obstructs the advancement of the public interest.”

The commission as a whole said it didn’t have enough information to judge whether Stewart met that standard while working from Philadelphia with sporadic visits to New Mexico. One commissioner, Frances Williams, said she feels strongly that the secretary of education specifically should live and work in New Mexico given the weight of responsibilities.

A long-standing residency requirement for public employees was eliminated from state statute in 1979 because it prevented agencies from employing qualified people who live in nearby communities such as El Paso, Texas, and limited out-of-state recruiting efforts, the commission found in its research.

Ethics Commissioner and former Gov. Garrey Carruthers said it may be time for state agencies and the Legislature to revisit the issue in light of the pandemic and new technologies.

“This working virtually is going to be more and more popular going forward,” he said.

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