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Commissioners take next step toward permanent telework

Wednesday, November 18, 2020 by Jo Clifton

The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with a scope of services for a consultant to advise them on a plan to have 75 percent of eligible employees to do their jobs by teleworking on a permanent basis. As a result of the coronavirus, commissioners directed staffers to create the framework for teleworking in May, and in July directed staffers to find an estimated $250,000 in funding for a consultant to devise the plan. The program is expected to show how 479 county employees can continue to work from home.

Travis County CIO Paul Hopingardner said he would be asking vendors to present proposals in line with the scope of services he and other staff members have developed for the program. The source of funding for the program is still unclear.

Commissioners Brigid Shea and Gerald Daugherty sponsored the resolution. Shea was particularly enthusiastic about the benefits of teleworking, both for Travis County and for employees. She said, “We have made a commitment as a court and as staff to achieve 75 percent telecommuting for eligible staff on a permanent basis. This will reap numerous benefits.”

When Travis County ordered its employees to stay home and work remotely in order to avoid spreading the coronavirus, Shea said, “The first thing we noticed was how rapidly it reduced our traffic congestion. We know … TxDOT doesn’t have enough money to deal with our congestion and transportation needs,” so teleworking offers the fastest way to decrease traffic while saving money. In addition, she said, an earlier survey of greenhouse gas emissions showed that employee commuting was the second-greatest contributor to greenhouse gas from Travis County.

“By moving to telecommuting with 75 percent of eligible employees, we dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” she said. “We also keep people safer,” because they are less likely to be exposed to the virus.

Shea added one surprising fact: The county auditor has documented an increase in productivity since people started telecommuting. In addition, she said the morale of county employees has improved. Travis County also has the opportunity to save money on leased parking and office space, she added.

“What’s not to love about this?” Shea concluded.

Daugherty was more cautious, though still supportive of the idea. He said, “This telework program that Commissioner Shea and I got pretty enthusiastic about when we saw we could actually do this in one respect is very exciting – and in another respect is a little frightening.”

He warned his colleagues that they would have to be vigilant, stressing that they need to make a decision right away about which staff person will be in charge of the project. “This is something you can’t really do by committee,” he said.

Daugherty, who is leaving office in January, said he was proud of Travis County for embarking on the project, which he hoped would be a model for other entities. He expressed some sadness that he would not be on the court to see the project through to its completion and urged his colleagues to keep careful watch over it. Sometimes, Daugherty said, “We find out we didn’t know what we didn’t know – but I’m excited to see Travis County embark on this.”

The vote to proceed was unanimous, and was the first vote that Andy Brown, newly sworn in as Travis County judge, presided over.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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