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Virginia Democrats press Youngkin to reverse stricter telework policy

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). (Steve Helber/AP)
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Virginia Democratic lawmakers Friday called on Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to reverse a new policy requiring state employees to return to in-person work full-time by July 5, arguing the move would drive away talented workers.

Youngkin announced the policy earlier this month as a bid to make Virginia more innovative and customer-friendly. Relaxed telework policies his predecessor, former governor Ralph Northam (D), implemented during the coronavirus pandemic allowed many of the state’s employees to work remotely multiple days per week.

With Friday being the deadline for state workers to apply for waivers from the new policy, eight Democrats from both chambers of the General Assembly argued in a letter to Youngkin that the move goes against a trend in the private sector that allows more flexibility for hybrid work schedules.

While resuming in-person service — at the Department of Motor Vehicles and elsewhere — is important, the lawmakers said, the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the Washington region illustrates the need to maintain remote work options for employees who may be vulnerable to infection or have family members who are vulnerable.

Moreover, their letter said, Virginia has allowed remote work to be an option since 2004, with supervisors using their discretion to help state employees in rural areas manage their schedules and to attract and retain coveted workers.

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“So many of our state employees understand and the value the public service that they provide to fellow Virginians,” the letter read. “However, the now-limited options for telework will likely lead to an attrition of talented state employees who will also carry a considerable amount of institutional knowledge with them.”

Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s spokesperson, said the administration’s goal is to deliver top-notch services in all agencies.

“We have established the new teleworking policy with flexibility to allow for an employee and their supervisor to discuss telework options and what’s appropriate for their role and the organization,” Porter said. “The legislators’ concerns were addressed in the policy and its implementation.”

Porter said the policy affects 58,000 employees in the state’s executive branch.

Youngkin has often accused Democrats of going overboard with pandemic rules, including the extended closure of schools, mask mandates and the suspension of walk-in services at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

But his action on remote work is in line with Virginia’s more liberal neighbors. Public employees in Maryland and D.C. have been back to in-person work since July.

The policy, which supersedes any previous telework arrangements made by individual state agencies, allows employees to seek exceptions for health reasons or other personal considerations, but senior administration officials would have to sign off on those waivers before they’re granted.

Only an agency head can approve a request to telework one day per week. A Cabinet secretary must sign off for two days per week. Three or more days a week requires permission from Youngkin’s chief of staff, Jeff Goettman.

It was unclear Friday how many of Virginia’s state employees had requested waivers, which Youngkin’s office has said will be processed by June 3 so there’s enough time for new work schedules to be set by July 5.

In their letter, the Democratic lawmakers asked Youngkin to allow state agency heads to collaborate with their staffs on steps to return to pre-pandemic work schedules and to wait until after the Labor Day holiday for those discussions to happen.

The legislators also asked the governor to establish an interagency work group — including General Assembly members whose districts are home to large numbers of state employees — to propose revisions to the current state policy on teleworking that would, in part, factor in technology that makes remote work easier.

Del. Rodney T. Willett (D-Henrico), one of the letter’s co-signers, said many state employees who live in his district just outside of Richmond have contacted his office with concerns about losing their more flexible work schedules.

That flexibility, plus the stronger health benefits that public employees generally receive, have been lures to professionals who might be able to earn more doing the same kind of work in the private sector, Willett said.

Willett said many state employees may be excited about the idea of returning to their offices full-time and that he supports that happening “where it makes sense.”

“The purpose for that is to make sure we’ve got people to provide the in-person services,” he said. “That’s super important.”

But, he said, if the loss of work flexibility drives away those workers “and those folks start going to the private sector, who’s going to provide the services in person?”