The Nebraska State Capitol Building on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Gov. Jim Pillen, stating that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, has ordered an end to remote work for state employees, directing them to return to their offices full time by Jan. 2.
But while Pillen characterized the move as fitting a “common sense expectation” that workers are most productive working together in an office, a state union official expressed fears that the move will hurt recruiting and retaining state employees at a time when many state agencies are short-staffed.
The most recent report on vacancies in state agencies showed more than 2,500 unfilled jobs as of Sept. 30.
Justin Hubly, the executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees (NAPE), which represents nearly 8,000 state workers, said that he’s aware of few problems with state workers toiling at home, or working “hybrid” hours split between a couple days a week at home and the rest at a work site.
Remote work, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, might have saved the state money, Hubly said, by reducing the “footprint” of state offices required — a contention one state agency said saved $500,000.
He said it is very appropriate for some jobs to be done remotel, such asy accounting and payroll supervision, that don’t require meeting the public.
“We’re still super short staffed,” he said. “I’m really fearful if we force people back, we’re going to lose a workforce.”
Pillen, in his executive order, said that the pandemic is over and that Nebraskans expect their leaders to “restore” the state’s workforce “to the posture it was prior to the pandemic.”
The executive order also appears to seek an end to flexible work schedules — something that is advertised on the statejobs.nebraska.gov website as an advantage of working for the State of Nebraska.
Website pitches flexible hours
“Say goodbye to burnout and hello to work-life balance with flexible work schedules,” says the webpage in pitching working for the state.
Pillen’s executive order states, ” … The regular work hours of all public servants employed by the State of Nebraska shall be from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., each day except Saturdays, Sundays and (holidays).”
However, the executive order adds that agency heads can make individual exceptions to sustain “critical operations” in agencies with worker shortages, in the event office space is lacking, or when an employee’s regular work hours are outside of 8-to-5.
The Governor’s Office provided the results of state agency surveys of remote work done in August. For instance, the Nebraska Department of Banking and Finance responded that 98% of its examiners, licensing and telephone answering workforce are allowed to work remotely one day out of a two-week period.
The Department of Administrative Services, which includes the state personnel division, responded that 20% of its 350 workers, along with two administrators, are on permanent remote or hybrid work status.
Telework saved $500,000 in office leases
DAS said the remote work policy preceded the pandemic and was implemented to “maximize” leased office space by allowing the Department of Insurance to move into state-owned offices, saving $500,000 a year.
The agency included 2016 state guidelines for “telecommuting,” which stated it was an voluntary arrangement that was another alternative for meeting an agency’s needs. Co-locating teams of workers, the agency pointed out, also has it advantages.
Hubly said that remote work is a bargaining subject in the state union contract and that NAPE will decide whether it wants reopen bargaining on its contract now, given the directive.
He disagreed with the governor’s characterization that the “common sense expectation” of people was that workers were most productive at an office.
The expectation of taxpayers, Hubly said, is “that their public services are provided as efficiently as possible.”
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