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City manager delays controversial new telework policy

Monday, July 31, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

Interim City Manager Jesús Garza is delaying implementation of a controversial new telework policy that will require most city employees to work in the office at least three days per week.

In a July 19 email, interim Human Resources Director Rebecca Kennedy announced the policy’s start will be delayed to Jan. 1.

“As the City works to develop the best telework policy for our organization today and into the future, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza has determined the anticipated changes announced for an October 1 implementation will be extended to January 1, 2024,” Kennedy wrote. “We understand employees must make family arrangements, and this additional time provides an opportunity to make those changes. This additional time will also allow us to collect thorough data to arrive at a fair, reasonable policy focused on our commitment to customer service.”

The initial timeline ordered all executives, including directors, deputy directors and assistant directors, to return to work in the office five days a week, effective June 5. It called for nonexecutive staff to return to the office for a minimum of three days per week, effective Oct. 1.

In a May 11 memo, Garza framed the change as necessary to build “high public service standards as well as excellence and reliability in service delivery.” Because the city is a public-facing organization, “we should have consistency that employees can rely on from one department to the next,” the memo reads.

The delayed timeline comes after resistance from Local 1624 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Business Manager Carol Guthrie said the union received “several hundred” calls, emails and texts from employees who disagreed with the plan and in particular objected to the tight timeline. Members rallied in protest at the end of May.

The union isn’t the only stakeholder fighting the change. The city’s environmental boards have each referenced Travis County’s decision to expand telework opportunities when urging the city to reverse course. Climate advocates believe that practice can help reduce the region’s air pollution.

The Environmental Commission recommended City Council direct the city manager to further study the issue before moving forward. “The study should: examine the full environmental impact between the current policy, the Interim City Manager’s proposed policy, and a city’s ability to offer its employees safe, effective and efficient remote work-from home options,” according to the recommendation.

AFSCME acknowledged the delay in a July 20 post to its blog. “Since our last City of Austin telework update, we’ve made some progress,” the statement reads. “One of our main objections was that the city manager was rushing the development of this policy. We reached an agreement to move the target implementation date from October to January, which will give the City more time to gather and assess the data we’ve demanded to see.”

The blog post also informs union members that the Travis County Commissioners Court recently heard updates on efforts to develop a countywide telework program and the status of the county Transportation and Natural Resources Department’s telework pilot program.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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