Another California agency calls workers back to office twice a week. But some are exempt

Another California state agency will require most of its workers to return to the office twice a week starting later this spring.

Secretary Mark Ghaly of the California Health and Human Services Agency broke the news in a memo emailed to all staff on Monday morning. The memo, obtained by The Sacramento Bee via a California Public Records Act request, sets a target implementation date of March 2024.

More than 90% of employees in nearly all of the agency’s departments were eligible to telework as of last November, according to the latest available data.

The return-to-office push comes after four years of nearly full remote work across California state government. The state suddenly shifted its operations online in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and since then, employees have overwhelmingly enjoyed the newfound flexibility that comes from eliminating commutes, such as gasoline savings, more time at home and cheaper housing prices further out from major metro areas. On the flipside, city officials and chambers of commerce have repeatedly begged the state to bring workers back to their offices.

CalHHS’s announcement follows a similar proclamation from the California Environmental Protection Agency, which also intends to bring workers back to the office twice a week. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget also proposes cutting state workers’ telework stipends, which amount to either $25 or $50 per person depending on eligibility.

The state’s Health and Human Services agency says the return-to-office push is part of the “journey to become an employer of choice as well as the best, most collaborative Agency in state government.”

The agency’s reasoning hinges largely on the argument that in-person work builds good team culture and provides opportunities for mentorship, collaboration and enrichment. In his memo, Ghaly points to the more than 7,000 new employees that joined the agency’s departments and offices within the last four years.

“Building a positive and strong organizational culture and a connected workforce is crucial, especially when we have many new employees,” Ghaly wrote. “We cannot achieve this by only being virtual, we do need to bring people together in-person to allow them to build relationships and to learn from each other.”

Nearly all departments and offices under CalHHS offered telework as an option to more than 90% of their employees, according to November 2023 data from the Department of General Services, the most recent data available. Exceptions include the Department of State Hospitals, where only 17% of employees were telework eligible, and the Department of Developmental Services, where about 32% of employees were able to work remotely.

Top officials in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration have previously touted the benefits of telework.

“The administration wants to continue to reap telework’s benefits for the employees and for the state,” said former Government Operations Agency Secretary Yolanda Richardson in a 2021 video address to state managers, “by making sure we encourage as much telework as possible while still meeting our mission to serve Californians.”

As the state prepared to reopen fully in June 2021, Newsom’s administration told department directors that 75% of state workers who could telework should still work from home. Most of the state’s 230,000 employees can work remotely, but many employed at state prisons, hospitals and other facilities cannot.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has previously called on public employees, at both state and local levels, to come back to their downtown offices at least a few days per week. He and current mayoral candidate Kevin McCarty have also been vocal advocates of converting surplus downtown spaces into affordable apartments and condos to combat the housing shortage.

“I will always be consistent in encouraging workers – state workers, local government workers – at a minimum to mix it up and work downtown at least a few days a week,” Steinberg told The Bee in 2022. “I also recognize and we all recognize that the past is the past. We don’t want anything to sit vacant and certainly we have opportunities to create something new.”

Exemptions for some CalHHS employees

Several classes of employees will be exempt from the return-to-office mandate. The agency will honor telework agreements with workers whose positions were advertised as fully remote. Plus, those who work in call centers or out in the field — such as inspectors, surveyors, auditors and others “deemed field-based by the department leadership” — will be allowed to continue working remotely.

However, the memo made clear that even those workers are expected to come into the office for in-person and site-based functions.

“This may include trainings, stakeholder meetings, or other events or meetings, when otherwise not conducting call center duties or field-based work, and as deemed appropriate by the department leadership,” Ghaly’s memo read.

All requests for alternative hybrid work schedules will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis “in accordance with the employee’s memorandum of understanding.” Departments will consider “operational or business needs” when determining whether to grant such requests, the memo said.

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