State's plan to rescind remote work policy draws criticism - Albuquerque Journal

State’s plan to rescind remote work policy draws criticism

Many of the state offices in the Harold Runnels Building in Santa Fe, shown in this November file photo, are empty or sparsely occupied. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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SANTA FE – New Mexico labor union leaders are warning of an employee exodus from state government agencies after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration this week said it would rescind a telework policy negotiated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After being notified of the decision, local leaders of the Communications Workers of America union cited frustration about what they described as a lack of communication from the executive branch, and said there’s no reason to force all state workers who have been doing their jobs remotely to return to the office.

“Our concern is this is going to degrade state government and it seems unnecessary,” said Megan Green, executive vice president of CWA’s local chapter who works for the state Environment Department.

She also said chronic challenges across many state agencies with recruitment and retention – only about 61% of new hires lasted their first year during the 2022 budget year – could be exacerbated by the decision to scrap the telework policy.

Other state employees, some of whom declined to provide their names for fear of possible retaliation, said the remote work policy has allowed workers to act as caregivers and minimize commuting expenses, while still fulfilling their job duties.

A 47,000-square-foot office building on Santa Fe’s southwest side was cited in a recent legislative report after analysts found it was largely unoccupied. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

However, New Mexico’s remote work policy for state government employees has come under scrutiny after a recent legislative report showed the state is paying up to $18 million for unoccupied office space – primarily in Santa Fe.

In addition, some Republican lawmakers have expressed concern about customer service issues, including constituent phone calls to some state agencies going unanswered.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Wednesday that revisions to the telework policy were already in the works even before the legislative report was issued last month.

She also said the governor’s administration was seeking to balance maintaining a productive and flexible workforce with the needs of state residents.

“It’s important to note that the current policy was put in place specifically in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – thankfully, we are no longer at that acute stage of the pandemic,” said Sackett, adding the administration is grateful to the roughly 22,000 state workers across New Mexico.

This week, State Personnel Office Director Teresa Padilla said in a memo to state employees the telework policy would be rescinded effective Jan. 1, adding the agency was in touch with union leaders to bargain over the impacts of the change.

“As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we ensure consistent availability of state employees to support the constituents we serve,” Padilla said in her memo.

But some union leaders have argued there’s no reason to fully scrap the policy that allows state workers to do their jobs remotely from home occasionally or entirely, depending on their duties.

Linsey Hurst, the CWA union’s agency vice president for the state Environment Department, said she recently took a new position that requires her to commute to work twice a week.

A largely empty office of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Ground Water Quality Bureau in Santa Fe is shown in this November file photo. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration plans to rescind a telework policy that has allowed many state employees to do their jobs remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

If the remote work policy is eliminated, she said she would have to commute five days a week, meaning more time away from home and higher gas expenses.

“That equation is not necessarily sustainable,” Hurst told the Journal.

Labor union leaders negotiated the terms of the telework policy with the governor’s administration in June 2021.

As it stands currently, the policy allows agency heads to 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.

In recent months, some state workers have been required by agency heads to return to in-person work, but the Legislative Finance Committee report said that, as of August, up to 38% of state employees still worked from home for some amount of time on any given day.

Meanwhile, some state agencies have dealt with high turnover and vacancy rates over the past several years, and there was a 24.3% average vacancy rate for rank-and-file positions across state government as of September, according to State Personnel Office data.

Some union leaders predict the vacancy rate could rise to 30% – if not higher – if the remote work option is rescinded.

They also point out some other large New Mexico employers – including Los Alamos National Laboratory – still allow employees to work remotely.

“This is not a good business decision when we’re already not a competitive employer for technical positions,” Hurst said.

Other states have also struggled with how to adjust telework policies enacted during the pandemic.

In Virginia, for example, more than 300 state employees reportedly resigned after that state’s governor rolled back its remote work policy.

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