By way of disclosure, I am an executive officer of the state employees’ union. I’ve worked for the New Mexico Department of Health for eight years. I came to the state after 32 years in private industry where I worked in businesses ranging from technology startups to large defense contractors. I am not a newcomer to business.
The Albuquerque Journal’s recent story, “Report: State pays big bucks for empty offices” makes a point.
The full subtitle of the report is “Unused space costs the state up to $18 million, flagging a need for better space planning around vacancies and telework.”
The state underutilizes its available space and has done so for years.
State agencies plan for space based on budgeted full-time employees (FTE). Currently, the FTE vacancy rate is 24.5%. Of course, planning based on the budgeted FTE count leads to over allocation of space.
Since the pandemic, up to 38% of state employees telework on any given day.
The interesting thing about telework is that it works. That is not to say every job can be done remotely, but clearly many can. Thirty-eight percent of state employees demonstrate this on any given day.
The Aug. 17, 2022, LFC Program Evaluation of the State Personnel Office (SPO) specifically refers to telework as a retention and recruitment tool. Yet, even as the state is struggling with a nearly 25% FTE vacancy rate, the threat of return to office (RTO) dominates staff meetings across the state. Rumors abound of a general call to RTO.
Juxtaposing empty office space with how remote work policy for employees is impacting government operations sets up telework as the strawman, where the real issue is the Legislature’s and administration’s inability to address long-standing hiring, compensation and retention issues.
I predict, based on my state and private sector experience, that if the administration issues a general return to office order, vacancy in state agencies will surge to 30% within two months.
The real pocketbook issue isn’t the state wasting money on unused space. The real pocketbook issue is the weak responses year after year to SPO’s poor handling of FTE vacancies and hiring.
SPO needs to take a leadership role. The Legislature and administration need to help SPO address lagging compensation and high FTE vacancy rates.
Read the LFC Program Evaluation reports – high (FTE) vacancy and turnover rates hinder CYFD from preventing repeat maltreatment of children, hinder DOH with drug prevention, lead to poor patient outcomes at DOH facilities, and force the Corrections Department to rely on private prisons, to list just a few. The list is long.
Alan Tway is an IT business analyst at the New Mexico Department of Health and executive secretary of CWA Local 7076, representing state workers.