Dec. 6—Thousands of state government employees who have been working remotely will be forced to return to the office at the beginning of the new year under a plan to do away with a telework policy born out of the coronavirus pandemic.
The head of the State Personnel Office said the presence of state workers at office sites is important to serving the public, but labor union officials contended the move to rescind the policy could prompt scores of workers to leave their jobs, making the state's vacancy rate of about 24 percent even worse.
"The word is out that working for the state ain't so good anymore," said Dan Secrist, president of Communications Workers of America — Local 7076, which represents about 2,700 state government employees.
"The workload is undoable, and they keep trying to add more, and now they're trying to take this away, which is one of the things that has made us even a little bit competitive as an employer," he added. "It's one of the dumbest things I have seen an administration do, and I've been working for the state of New Mexico for 25 years now."
The push to eliminate the telework policy comes on the heels of a Legislative Finance Committee report that found the state is underutilizing building space and overestimating office needs for employees, costing taxpayers up to $18 million annually. The state's underutilization of available building space has been exacerbated by recent trends in telework, according to the report, which found that up to 38 percent of state government employees work remotely on any given day.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said discussions about the telework policy were already under way when the report was issued.
"The current policy was put in place specifically in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — thankfully, we are no longer at that acute stage of the pandemic," she wrote in an email.
Sackett also wrote the administration is "deeply grateful" for employees' work.
"As always, the state's goal is to balance being a productive and flexible workplace with the needs of the New Mexicans we serve, which include being accessible and available to the public," she wrote.
Teresa Padilla, director of the state Personnel Office, notified state employees in a letter last week the telework policy would be rescinded Jan. 1.
"Our workforce is our greatest asset, and we are committed to making sure that this transition is as smooth as possible for state employees," the letter states. "As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we ensure consistent availability of state employees to support the constituents we serve."
The notification caught many employees off guard, said Connie Derr, executive director of AFSCME Council 18, which represents a little over 6,000 state government employees.
"We know at some point there's going to be the phase-in of return-to-office work, but it was just sent out and there was no notification ahead of time," she said.
Derr said the labor union has asked to meet with the state at the bargaining table.
"We don't think that it should be immediately implemented," she said of the policy. "There's no reason to do that. ... I think there's a reasonable way and a thoughtful way to move more folks back into the workplace."
Derr said she's heard only from a couple of employees who have indicated they would quit if the state gets rid of the remote work option.
"I don't know if that would actually happen," she said. "I mean, working for the state of New Mexico, there's a lot of good benefits, and the pay is moving up. We've been able to negotiate some good items in the contract, good retirement, so right now I think there's some frustration."
Alan Tway, secretary of Local 7076 of the Communications Workers of America, said he became physically ill after the state notified employees it was rescinding the policy.
"We had such an intense conversation that I ended up in the emergency room that night," he said.
"I was furious, and the reason I was furious ... is they were dishonest in how they approached it, and we believe they're actually in violation of the contract," he said, adding the state Personnel Office notified the union about the looming change about 10 minutes before notifying the workforce.
Tway predicted the state's decision to rescind the policy would affect recruitment and retention efforts.
"People are leaving state employment," he said. "They're going to places that offer telework. They're going to places that offer better pay. It's as simple as that."
Tway, who works in information technology at the Department of Health, said the state is already having a hard time keeping employees. A performance report card on the state Personnel Office found only 61 percent of new employees completed their first year on the job in fiscal year 2022.
"My supervisor just quit; her last day will be this Friday," Tway said. "She's going someplace where she can telework."
Megan Green, executive vice president of Local 7076, said managers, not just employees, oppose the state's plan to rescind the policy.
"People are very upset," she said, adding the union's office was flooded with phone calls and emails immediately after the state issued its notification.
In the letter to employees, Padilla wrote the state Personnel Office is now in discussions with union leaders to "bargain the effects of this change."
"We value our close and respectful working relationship with union leadership and look forward to meeting with them to discuss the effects of the update to a policy put in place as the state continued to evolve its response to an unprecedented pandemic," Padilla wrote in an email to The New Mexican. "It is critical that state government ensures consistent availability in order to be accessible and supportive to the constituents we are proud to serve."
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.