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In Pennsylvania, Republican legislators are raising concerns about how remote work during the pandemic has affected the performance and productivity of some state employees.
Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania say the time has come for state employees who have worked remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic to return to their regular workplaces. They cite complaints from constituents about difficulties reaching people at state agencies and anecdotal reports of employees not putting in full work days.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration defends the state’s approach to telework, saying it’s centered around health precautions and that, overall, employees are performing well. “They have met this challenge,” Michael Newsome, secretary of the governor’s Office of Administration, said during testimony on Monday before the Pennsylvania House’s State Government Committee.
“No one anticipated being home for an entire year," he added.
Even GOP legislators raising concerns acknowledged that remote work could have upsides for the state and its workforce beyond the pandemic. But they also voiced frustration about what they’re hearing from residents calling into their district offices. “Our constituents simply want someone at a state agency answering the phone who can actually help them,” said Rep. Russ Diamond.
Pennsylvania has roughly 72,000 state workers at agencies that handle responsibilities ranging from corrections to transportation. Newsome said about 35% of them—or about 25,000 people—are now working remotely either all or some of the time.
The commonwealth isn’t unique. States and local governments across the country scrambled to rapidly expand remote work programs when the coronavirus hit last year.
Now, as more people are vaccinated and hopes rise that the pandemic is nearing its end, there are questions about how much agencies will embrace telework going forward and what technology and policies it will take to build successful long-term remote work programs.
Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican who chairs the State Government Committee, said in a statement after the hearing this week that telework can make sense in certain areas of state government.
“But not all,” he said. “Some employees can perform tasks from home, others simply need to be in their place of employment to fulfill their responsibilities.”
“State employees need to return to work in person and the governor needs to set a date for that to happen,” Grove added. “Residents shouldn’t be left listening to busy signals because of a lack of planning or a willingness to adapt and overcome.”
At one point during the hearing, a lawmaker mentioned June 1 as a potential return date for in-person work for some state employees. But Newsome emphasized that this is not a timeline he was aware of, and said no such date had been officially set.
Rep. Frank Ryan said he’s heard from constituents who can’t get through to agency offices, as well as state employees who feel they are working harder during the pandemic while other employees are “spending a half an hour, to an hour a day on a Zoom call and getting full pay.”
“They feel the inequity and the injustice of that,” Ryan, a Republican, said.
There are formal channels in place, through both labor unions and the state, for people to lodge complaints if they believe there are workplace problems or inequities occurring, according to Reid Walsh, deputy secretary for human resources and management at the Office of Administration. She also pointed out that the pandemic led to unprecedented call volumes for some agencies.
During the hearing, lawmakers also asked how state agencies track when people are active on their computers and what safeguards are in place to ensure that sensitive data is secure when people are working from home and possibly around other household members.
State telework in Pennsylvania is happening under a management directive meant to enable employees to work remotely during emergency situations. Looking ahead, Walsh explained that if the state begins to allow for long-term telework for certain employees, guidelines would not be set by that directive, but rather a more detailed permanent policy.
Grove said he’d like to see the governor's office establish a more concrete policy like this. “It’s been a year,” he said.
A committee is in place to oversee planning for the return to in-person work, Walsh said. The state’s Department of Health and other agencies are represented on that panel. Walsh said employee safety and avoiding service disruptions are both top priorities for the group.
In terms of the benefits telework could offer in the long-run, Walsh noted that it could help with recruiting and retention of workers and open the door to incorporate employees in outlying offices into operations that are happening in an agency’s headquarters.
Newsome pointed to the potential savings from office downsizing. He also flagged possible perks for employees like cutting commute times and parking expenses. And he suggested that remote options could reduce the time and expense previously needed for in-person training and provide a way to keep operations running during severe weather.
“Telework is going to be here to stay,” he said.
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.