Committee tables bill allowing state employees to work from home

Committee tables bill allowing state employees to work from home

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Jen Paul Schroer, Cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Tourism Department, told lawmakers Tuesday, “We serve the public better when we are in our offices.”

Schroer and about 20 other Cabinet secretaries and deputy secretaries showed up at a legislative committee hearing in opposition to a bill that would allow state employees to work remotely if their physical presence is not required at a job site to perform their duties.

Several lawmakers on the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee said they were impressed and swayed by the parade of department leaders; they voted 7-4 to table House Bill 300.

The action, which means the measure has a slim chance of passing both chambers of the Legislature this session, is bad news for state government employees who prefer working from home.

It comes just weeks after the State Personnel Office required employees to begin reporting to their worksites nearly three years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Union leaders protested the move, saying the pandemic proved workers can be as productive, if not more productive, at home. Working from home also allows employees to save on commute time and expenses and, in some cases, to avoid the costs of child care, many state workers argued. They noted a requirement to return to the office would prompt some employees to seek employment elsewhere, increasing the state government vacancies.

Alan Tway, secretary of Local 7076 of the Communications Workers of America, told members of the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, “If we don’t stand behind our employees, they are going to leave.”

State Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of HB 300, told the committee the measure was an effort to “recruit and retain” employees and wouldn’t apply to all workers.

“We’re not talking about everyone being eligible,” she said. 

Some Cabinet secretaries who spoke against the bill said a telework policy is inequitable because the job duties of many employees require them to work on site while their colleagues work at home — with the added benefits of cutting gas expenses and travel time. 

“Everybody wants to go home and work from there, take care of children,” said Rep. Harlan Vincent, R-Glencoe. But, he added, the Legislature would be “opening up a Pandora’s box” if it allowed state employees to work from home.

In an interview after the hearing, Tway said he believed those who spoke in opposition to the bill  were “marshaled” by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Managers should have the ability to decide if an employee should work from home or in the office, he added. 

The bill’s fiscal impact report, which examines data from 22 state agencies, says allowing or expanding telework opportunities for employees could save money on building rentals and improve morale. 

The initiative “could improve recruitment and retention of state employees,” the report says, noting the current vacancy rate for state employees is 20 percent.

“As more public entities, including the federal and other state governments, embrace expanded telework,” it continues, “New Mexico could be at a strategic disadvantage.”

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