SANTA FE – After being delayed for a month, the deadline for all New Mexico state employees to return to the office has arrived.
But some workers say they’re planning to leave over the back-to-the-office mandate, which takes effect Thursday and comes as New Mexico is already struggling with high vacancy rates in many state agencies.
Brian Schath, an employee in the state Environment Department’s Climate Change Bureau, said he’s already started interviewing for new jobs and plans to leave state government after wrapping up a project in April.
He said he’s worked a hybrid schedule — averaging about two days a week in the office — over the last year or so and feels he’s more productive when working from home.
“I seriously do feel like the option to telework a few days a week has allowed me to get more done,” Schath said in a Wednesday interview, adding the remote work option was one perk that helped sway him toward accepting a state job over a private sector position.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration announced in November it would be rescinding the remote work policy and bringing employees who had been allowed to work from home back to the office.
But after talks with labor union leaders, state officials delayed a proposed Jan. 3 return date for rank-and-file employees by a month to give them more time to prepare. All managers and supervisors who had been working remotely were directed to return to the office last month.
State Personnel Director Teresa Padilla said Wednesday about two-thirds of the state’s nearly 17,000 rank-and-file employees were already back in the office full-time as of the start of this year.
Of the employees still working remotely, only about 1,300 were teleworking on a full-time basis, with the rest working on hybrid schedules that include both working remotely and in the office, Padilla said.
She also said the state would continue to process requests for remote work under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
“While the remote work policy is no longer in effect, the state of course continues to respond to any necessary ADA accommodations — those processes occur on an individual basis,” Padilla said.
New Mexico’s remote work policy came under scrutiny last year after a legislative report showed the state was paying up to $18 million for unoccupied office space — primarily in Santa Fe.
But the Governor’s Office has said the decision to rescind the telework policy was already in the works before that, citing a need to balance a productive state government workforce with customer service issues.
But some union leaders and state workers say there’s been a lack of communication from the executive branch about the move, while also arguing there’s no reason to force all state workers who have been doing their jobs remotely to return to the office. Some employees also protested outside the Roundhouse on the opening day of the 60-day session that started last month.
With the return to office deadline approaching, more than 40 employees of the state Department of Health were recently told they were expected to show up to work in Santa Fe, starting Thursday.
In addition, Emma Green, who works in the Public Education Department, said she and other colleagues were recently instructed to report to the basement of a Santa Fe state government building, starting Tuesday.
She said she’s considering leaving her job — and New Mexico — over the handling of the telework policy, saying, “It just feels like no one is listening to the stories of how this unreasonable decision is impacting our elders, children and communities.”
“It’s going to be a mass exodus and it’s already starting,” Green told the Journal.
Labor union leaders negotiated the terms of the telework policy with the governor’s administration in June 2021.
The policy has allowed 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.
Even with the policy in place, some agencies have struggled with both recruiting and retaining new workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Mexico had a 24.3% vacancy rate for rank-and-file positions across state agencies as of September, according to State Personnel Office data.
While state employee salary increases approved by Lujan Grisham took effect last summer could aid with retention efforts, only about 61% of new hires lasted their first year during the 2022 budget year, according to Legislative Finance Committee data.
Labor union leaders have argued the decision to scrap the remote work policy could end up costing the state money in terms of building leases and related expenses. They have also challenged the state’s authority to cancel the policy without bargaining.
Specifically, the Communications Workers of America Local 7076 union filed a complaint on the matter with the state Public Employees Labor Relations, though it could take months for the complaint to be resolved.
As for Schath, he said the return to the office mandate could specifically cause the state to lose talented young members of its workforce, some of whom could find private sector jobs that still allow remote work.
“A lot of my life is centered around that option,” he said.
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