Home News and Features Finding A Balance: For Many State Workers a Corner Has Been Turned

Finding A Balance: For Many State Workers a Corner Has Been Turned

Joe Aja, director of design and construction for the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services, has his hands full eight months after the July floods, as BGS assesses damages and redesign for Montpelier’s Capitol Complex. BGS workers are in-office at least three days a week. Aja, and some others, come in every day. Photo by John Lazenby.
At the end of June 2023, as the state tallied its workforce for a final report before the 2024 fiscal year was launched in July, a survey ascertained that 8,035 people were employed by the state of Vermont. 

According to Beth Fastiggi, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Human Resources, 4,247 — more than half — worked in Washington County. Waterbury has a sizable state footprint, and Barre somewhat less. But with a complex of 17 buildings, ranging in size from former private homes along Baldwin Street, to the Statehouse and the five-story granite edifice at 133 State Street — Montpelier is the beehive.

Or was. Business leaders and others worry that since the double whammy of the three-year COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous floods of last July, state policies that permit a substantial portion of its workforce to work remotely are quieting a once-bustling little city. Before COVID, the influx of state employees from outlying communities swelled Montpelier’s modest population (8,000) on a daily basis; they patronized stores, clubs, theaters, galleries, and restaurants, helping keep the culture and economy afloat.

They still do, but, inarguably, not as much.

Fastiggi credits telework with enabling the city and state to withstand recent trials. And telework, she says, predates the pandemic.

“We had a policy where employees could request to work remotely for a day or two, or however much they wanted to, per week, and with the leadership’s approval were able to do that.”

Teleworking competently and successfully requires equipment and practice. The pandemic forced that experience on a wider range of employees, says Fastiggi, so when July’s floodwaters surged “our workforce had the ability, even if their preference was to be in the office, to work remotely — that is, if their homes weren’t impacted by the flood.”

Many state jobs cannot be performed remotely, so those departments remain fully staffed, on-site. 

“If you work at the Department of Motor Vehicles you’re standing at a counter and interacting with customers. At the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin our employees are there 24/7 taking care of patients. They worked throughout the pandemic, in-person, never closing the facility, always on duty.”

By contrast, some agencies and departments lend themselves readily to remote — or at least hybrid — work schedules. Fastiggi’s department, with offices upstairs from the DMV, is one of them, and she’s thankful for it.

“The majority of our work is interacting with state employees, a lot of emails and online stuff that can easily be done remotely as long as you have the tools and communication skills to share information back and forth with people and get your work done.”

Fastiggi lives in Burlington, and says she typically works at home three or four days a week “But not everyone’s home is fantastic for getting their work done there. And some people certainly prefer the office; they like their interaction with coworkers and prefer to keep their home and work lives separate. With changes after the pandemic, though, especially in administrative work, people are enjoying the flexibility to telework. 

“And now that expectation is there, not just for state of Vermont employees but for the workforce in general.”

Her cell phone dings. An alert.

“I just got notification that I-89 has closed due to snow squalls and accidents near the Richmond exit. Good thing I decided not to go to Montpelier today.”

The Every Day Workforce

Jennifer Fitch is the “appointing authority” for the Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS). It comes with her position as the commissioner of the department, which oversees 240 state-owned buildings and 120 leased spaces across the state: a staggering inventory of office buildings, prisons, human-services branch locations, highway garages, healthcare centers, etc. And of course the capitol complex in Montpelier.

 “It’s about five million square feet in all,” she summarizes.

“Appointing authorities,” says Fitch, “are the ones who determine, based on what the employee’s job functions are, how much they can work at home and how much they should be in the office.”

The pandemic and the flood presented almost contradicting challenges: scarcity and distancing for COVID-19, and all-hands-on-deck for the flood, which brutalized parts of the complex. When that emergency subsided, Fitch and her staff had to reassess the balance between teleworking and coming to the office. (Her office is on the fifth floor at 133 State Street.)

“Most of our workforce shows up every day because they’re maintenance mechanics or custodians. At the central office, we have elected to do three days here and two days at home for those who wish. I’m here five days a week, and so is Joe,” she says, nodding to Joe Aja, a 40-year BGS veteran, the department’s director for design and construction.

Several calculations go into her decisions. Collaboration is foremost; the video platform TEAMS brings people together virtually for meetings, but Fitch believes in-person conversations and hallway chats (“we time”) create a more productive atmosphere. “Me time” is when productive work can be accomplished in private, at home.

But she says her decisions are also made with the community in mind.

“Our goal at GPS is to support economic development in downtowns, which is why we site state buildings in downtown settings. We also recognize that workers are going out to lunch, to the grocery store, the bookstore, and the toy store before they go home. We want to be good community partners; we want to invest in our communities to the best of our ability.”

Fitch says she is aware of “rumors” that, with leadership’s approval, state workers are hardly ever coming in.

“I can tell you that is not true. Again, it’s set by every appointing authority. We’re here at least three days a week at BGS. DMV (Motor Vehicles) is in five days a week; DOL (Labor), who’s also in Montpelier, they’re in five days a week.”

Of course, there’s a difference between three days and five days. Is three days — or whatever else appointing authorities decide — sufficient to keep Montpelier feeling like Montpelier?

“It Gives You Some Flexibility”

Vermont workers have now sampled a lifestyle that many feel works better for them, and it’s hard to imagine society de-evolving.

Joe Castellano, a right-of-way appraiser, has worked for Vermont’s Agency of Transportation since 2014. Since shortly before the pandemic he’s been stationed at the AOT’s office in Barre. More often he works from his home in Montpelier. (His job involves field work, so he’s on the road sometimes.)

The office regimen has changed noticeably. It’s most crowded on Wednesdays, the day his supervisor usually chooses for staff meetings, and there’s a new “hoteling” policy, in which employees go online when they know when they’re coming in, to reserve a desk – a conservation measure that would have been unimaginable pre-pandemic.

“There’s a handful of people who’ve gone back to five days a week in the office,” says Castellano, “and some are there a minimum of three days. It depends on their department and their preferences.”

As for him?

“Just one day a week. That’s fairly common.”

How’s it going?

“I love it! It gives you some flexibility. Everybody’s got families or things that impact their schedule — maybe a doctor appointment or getting the tires on their car changed out. A lot of times if I have an errand to run and don’t want to officially take time off I’ll just work an extra half hour at home after dinner. Whereas in the old style I’d have to get permission from my manager and take it out of my annual leave.”

That half hour after dinner easily stretches out longer as he delves into the task at hand. Importantly, he says, this new work arrangement does not undermine success.

“There was a recent email [from an administrator] who said they’re finding that we’re more productive. I think it dovetails with what I was saying: ‘Okay, I had this impact my schedule today so I’ll work a little bit at home tonight.’”

Having workspaces at home makes that possible.

Castellano concedes there are drawbacks to workplaces being less personal, and perhaps less cohesive.

“But you also have people who now don’t have to come in everyday from, like, Elmore, from Wolcott, from Fairfax or Bradford. And they might have kids, and there’s that whole daycare challenge. Or the kid gets sick.

“This has been a game changer for them.”

It’s a game changer for our culture, in fact. The question is whether it can be sorted out to everyone’s benefit.