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California should embrace telework for state employees

In summary

Departments in state government are formalizing remote-work policies, but will they support a telework program that trusts public servants to perform?

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By Cameron Knudson, Special to CalMatters

Cameron Knudson is president of Professional Engineers in California Government, representing 14,000 state engineers, architects, geologists, and related professionals.

Two years ago, COVID-19 prodded the state of California to launch a massive telework program, the most significant operational change to public service since the adoption of desktop computers. It has been a rousing success.

Now we have arrived at a critical juncture as departments formalize remote-work policies for the post-pandemic world: Will we fully embrace flexible telework as COVID worries ease, or slide back toward an outdated, inefficient, butts-in-seats business model that poorly serves Californians, state employers and state employees? 

Early indications, unfortunately, suggest the latter. Departments are ordering employees back to the office by April 1 for two, three and four days a week without identifying any operational need for the mandate.

As president of Professional Engineers in California Government, I can tell you many of the 14,000 state engineers, architects, geologists and related professionals we represent don’t understand these recent return-to-the-office edicts. Sadly, two years of employee resilience, innovation and success are giving way to an old paradigm that dismissed state telework for 30 years.

For many reasons, the state must maintain a robust and flexible policy, starting with the Newsom administration’s 2021 directive for 75% of state employees to telework. Since then, data show 16 departments tracked by the state are hitting the mark. About 72% of employees eligible for remote work do so full-time, 22% telework part-time and just 6% of employees who could work remotely do not. 

The state’s experience reflects what studies show: Teleworking employees are as productive or even more productive than commuting staff. When commuting is a quick walk down the hall, employees are generally more relaxed, happier, more efficient and take less sick time. 

The governor wisely seized the moment, telling departments that telework was here to stay and should be the first option for state employees, not the last. 

“The administration wants to continue to reap telework’s benefits for the employees and for the state,” Newsom’s government operations secretary said last year, “by making sure we encourage as much telework as possible while still meeting our mission to serve Californians.”

Since then, telework has saved taxpayers a projected $22.5 million in relinquished office leases, according to government data, and the savings will nearly quadruple to $85 million annually in coming years. Telework also reduces the state’s carbon footprint, benefiting the environment.

Many of our members value the convenience, savings and work-life balance telework provides. They appreciate the state’s accommodations, from state-issued laptops and teleconferencing technology to stipends that help offset home-office expenses. They avoid jammed commutes while burning $6-per-gallon gas. But, above all else, our members have appreciated the implicit trust that they can stay home and still serve Californians.  

But as employers roll out post-pandemic work policies, new state rules replace the flexibility, consistency and good faith with random dictates arbitrarily applied to be in the office a certain number of days without identifying how that serves operational needs or the public. In essence, work-from-home opportunities are becoming a matter of individual departments’ or managers’ predilections, not what is necessarily best for California. 

This could well bump up against the Professional Engineers in California Government’s labor agreement with the state, which says, in part, “no employee’s request for telecommuting shall be unreasonably denied.”

There is still time for the state to get it right. Extending two years of cooperation and success should not devolve into a costly labor-management dispute over the unnecessary denial of telework options that serve no department objective or mission.  

Professional Engineers in California Government urges decision-makers at all levels of state government to stay true to the administration’s stated objectives – provide telework opportunities to as many employees as possible to reduce carbon emissions and congestion, save money by downsizing office space, and improve productivity and service to the public.  

After all, the administration’s remote-work goals, the facts and the last two years support a vigorous statewide telework program that trusts public servants to perform. So do Professional Engineers in California Government.

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