PORTLAND, Ore. — Partly of necessity, and because technology had advanced to a sufficient degree, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a massive expansion in the number of people working remotely. With the height of the pandemic in the rearview, many workers were welcomed back to the office — or ordered back, as the case may be.
But thousands of workers for Oregon's government agencies are still working from home — and hundreds of them are living and working in another state entirely, like Texas or Arizona. When those workers need to be brought back for meetings or other duties, it's Oregon taxpayers who foot the bill.
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal featured a front-page story about how more bosses are ordering staff back into the office, telling workers that they should use a hybrid schedule or otherwise ensure that they're in the office more days each week in 2023.
But Oregon — that is, the state of Oregon as an employer of government workers — hasn't changed its pandemic-era policies on remote work. The policy also allows agencies to use taxpayer funds to bring workers back to Oregon, if they are living out of state, to attend meetings or receive training.
The Oregon state of mind
According to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, 7,691 state employees are working remotely full-time. Almost 500 more work remotely full-time and live outside of the state.
Some of the latter category live relatively close — in southwest Washington or Idaho, for example — but some live in states much further away. It's a small percentage of the roughly 40,000 state employees in Oregon, but it's not insignificant either.
Here's the breakdown at two of the state's biggest agencies:
- The Oregon Department of Human Services has 2,446 people working remotely in Oregon and another 157 working from other states.
- The Oregon Health Authority has 1,281 workers who are working remotely in Oregon and 99 who live in other states.
We asked the state for a list of all workers who live in a state outside of Oregon. About 176 live in Washington. Another 300 workers live in more distant states, including Minnesota, Michigan, California, Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Utah, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, Nevada, Maine, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
The job titles range from information specialist to policy analyst to office specialist, among others that could probably be done from anywhere. However, there was one title for a corrections officer located in Texas, context unknown.
We asked the Oregon Department of Human Services how much they've spent bringing people back from out of state for meetings. They reported that it totaled about $4,000 for the first 9 months of 2022.
That amount of money is pocket change compared to the budget of the entire agency, and even less compared to the state budget. Regardless, it's tax money going toward bringing someone back to Oregon when they've chosen to live outside the state.
KGW tried to reach several state sources for an interview on the subject. Gov. Tina Kotek's office didn't respond, while the Department of Administrative Services said that no one was available.
'An important tool for recruitment and retention'
Several weeks ago, The Story's Pat Dooris did speak to Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, a Democrat. As an elected official Read is able to set his own policies for his office, and he has. While he said that he's all for remote work flexibility, he's not in favor of paying to bring employees back for meetings.
"We still believe that there are advantages to be gained by being flexible, that we can hire talent in more places," Read said. "I still believe we are better off when we come together, when we can be creative and collaborative — and I still believe that employers get to determine the terms of employment when a person comes to work and how they do that work, and I still believe we don't pay for people to commute. It's their right to choose where they want to live and our expectation they'll get themselves to work."
"So if somebody is living in Alabama, living in Alabama and wants to work for the Treasury, you're not gonna pay to fly them in for regular meetings?" Dooris asked.
"No," Read responded.
"Because some state agencies are," said Dooris.
"I'm Treasurer, I get to exercise my responsibility to the Treasury," Read said. "And the leadership I want to provide here is based on that recognition that flexibility is smart but we work for Oregonians, not the other way around. And we're gonna keep that in mind as we make that, our efforts to balance those competing concerns. But no, I don't think that someone, as they exercise their right to chose where they live, the beneficiaries of our funds should not pay for their commutes."
Read's own department has remote workers living in other states, even if their trips back to Oregon aren't being covered. Not counting the ones living in Washington, there are 10.
Not everyone agrees with Read, either. So what's the justification for the rest of the state government?
The Department of Administrative Services issued a statement that reads, in part:
"As we come out of the pandemic, our top priority remains ensuring that Oregonians are well served. When this can be accomplished, and when the business needs of the agency can be met, we are finding that continuing to offer remote work as an option is an important tool for recruitment and retention ... especially as many private and public sector employers have moved rapidly in this direction."
While it's certainly true that many workers have come to expect remote work as an option once the pandemic provided a strong proof of concept, recent headlines suggest that many big employers have been rolling things back.
NBC reported that Disney recently told employees they'd have to spend at least four days on-site per week. CEO Bob Iger wrote, "Nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together." And Disney's far from the online big U.S. corporation to take a similar step.
In Oregon, some lawmakers are frowning upon the idea of taxpayer money being used to bring state employees back from elsewhere in the country for meetings. KGW learned that a bill with at least some bipartisan support will be introduced in the legislature on Monday. It remains to be seen whether that bill will advance.