Home News and Features No Change Planned For State Employee Remote Working Policy

No Change Planned For State Employee Remote Working Policy

Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel.
Altering state policy to require state workers working remotely to come to the office more often than they are doing now is not being considered by the Scott Administration, and in any case such a change would likely require agreement of the state employees’ union, according to interim Secretary of Administration Sarah Clark.

Some downtown Montpelier businesses have been struggling because of a lack of foot traffic and have been holding out hope the state could someday switch to full-time office work or a hybrid policy more along lines of those at local companies such as National Life and Vermont Creamery, which require office workers to come to work Tuesday through Thursday. 

Lauren Parker, owner of North Branch Café, posted a “Plea to Montpelier” on Front Porch Forum May 17 asking residents to shop and eat out more. “We now face less workers in town during the week, less people living in town and lots of empty buildings,” she wrote. “The downtown was crafted around the expectation of around 20,000 people during the day and we all need to work with the city and the state to figure out how to make that happen again.”

The possibility the city’s day population will bounce back to prior levels any time soon now seems unlikely, given the state’s position and the extensive remote working by private sector workers with offices in Montpelier. Rabble-Rouser closed recently, and in late June, Parker posted again, announcing that her business was still struggling and asking people to donate to a GoFundMe campaign for the North Branch Cafe. As of July 4, she was halfway to her goal of raising $30,000.

According to Secretary of Administration Clark, about 2,500 of the state’s 10,000 plus employees have a work location in Montpelier. The state has no data on how many employees work remotely on any given day, Clark said. In rare instances, she said, some state employees are given permission to live out of state full time or a major portion of the year.

The state’s “telework” policy — which allows employees to make remote working arrangements with their superiors — is considered a term and condition of employment, and as such, is subject to bargaining with the state employees’ union, Clark said. The current union contract is a two-year agreement that just started July 1. 

Moreover, workers seem to enjoy working remotely, which may be helping the state retain workers at a time when the state has over 1,000 job vacancies and unemployment rates are low. 

“Our Employee Engagement Survey indicates higher employee engagement for those with hybrid/telework; and higher indicators of staff retention for those with hybrid/telework,” Clark said.

Most state workers who work remotely still come into the office on some days. According to the 2023 Employee Engagement survey, less than 13% of responders were 100% remote. Another 25% do no remote work, and nearly 40% indicated they were in the office two or more days per week. Practically, the percentage of employees who do no remote work is likely higher than 25% because folks who are not in administrative roles are less likely to complete the survey, Clark said.

The Bridge spoke with a couple of local state workers who described the situation in their offices. At the Tax Department in Montpelier, all state workers are required to come into the office on Wednesdays, which is considered a “core” day, a Tax Department employee said, off the record. On a non-core day, he thinks about 20% go to the office, he said.

“Some people go in every day because they like the office or the air conditioning,” he said. “Personally, I get more work done at home without the socializing of the office, and am now going in one or two days a week this summer,” he said. In general, he believes “most everybody likes the schedule and working at home.”

A Transportation Department worker at Barre’s City Place, who also likes working from home, said that it is up to each manager’s discretion as to how often their employees come into the office. 

“With the exception of Wednesdays, the parking lots are mostly empty and there are not many employees in the building,” he said. “I would venture to guess that the offices are occupied between 20% and 30% on most days, excepting Wednesdays.”

The state’s telework policy, established in 2012, requires workers to fill out a form if they want to “work remotely from an alternate worksite, including an employee’s home, on a regularly scheduled basis.” The option apparently came into widespread use during the pandemic and has not diminished in popularity, even as COVID cases waned and the situation became less dangerous.

The policy states: “The Appointing Authority or designee has the sole discretion to approve an employee’s request for telework, and will only permit telework when consistent with the operating needs of the Agency or Department.” Certain jobs, such as those involving direct in-person client contact, are not eligible for telework.

“An employee engaged in telework, must, unless otherwise authorized, devote his/her full time, attention, and effort to the duties and responsibilities of his/her position during scheduled work hours,” the policy says. “Employees are required to be accessible via telephone and/or email during scheduled work hours.” 

Under the policy, the state supplies employees with computers, software, and office supplies. However, employees are not reimbursed for “office furniture, broadband or other internet connections, telephone, utilities, mileage reimbursement or other related expense for travel to the employee’s official duty station, and/or any other inconvenience as a result of engaging in telework.”

“Telework is a voluntary program, provided at the sole discretion of the Appointing Authority, and may be terminated by the employee or employer at any time, with or without cause,” the policy states. Clark clarified that “[t]his clause is relative to a specific employee’s telework agreement, not the policy itself,” which appears to be here to stay.

Gov. Phil Scott’s press secretary, Amanda Wheeler, suggested the telework policy is not the main or only factor hurting Montpelier’s stores and restaurants. “We have been seeing declines in downtowns in small communities for a number of years — we’re even seeing the dynamic changing on Church Street in Burlington,” she said.

“The Governor has been saying since coming into office how important it is to pay attention to our downtowns and economic centers — especially in rural Vermont — which are all impacted by our aging demographics, housing crisis, and affordability challenges,” Wheeler said.