City Workers Protest City Manager’s Mandatory Return to Office

Protesters say it will be disastrous for recruitment and retention

City workers protest a forced return to their offices on June 1 at City Hall (Photo by Jana Birchum)

City employees with the union AFSCME Local 1624 protested last week at City Hall against City Manager Jesús Garza’s recent telework policy change, but it wasn’t enough to stop the first phase from going forward.

On May 11, Garza sent a memo to all city workers requiring that all executives be in office five days a week starting June 5, and all non-executive staff do so three days a week starting October 1. AFSCME immediately issued a statement saying they had met with the city manager the day before to argue against the policy, but he “showed no interest in negotiating.”

Since then, they’ve met with the manager once, “and it was positive, but it was just talking, right,” says Carol Guthrie, business manager for AFSCME Local 1624. Guthrie says AFSCME has requested data on how many people are teleworking 100% of the time, what their positions require, and their productivity levels, and once the manager provides that data, they’ll meet again, hopefully in the next few weeks while Council is on break. If they don’t reach an agreement before July 20, they’ll turn to Council for a resolution or some other action against the policy.

In the memo, Garza says the policy “is not something that happened overnight,” and that his reasoning for the change is “to provide top-quality customer service to our residents” and promote team building. “I am also a firm believer in working as one organization, with consistent practices across departments.” But AFSCME is asking for data that shows current telework doesn’t provide that “top-quality customer service”: Their statement points out that “there is no indication that Garza properly gathered or analyzed feedback or data from City employees who currently telework.”

AFSCME says requiring in-office work would push many employees to quit, creating more work for recruitment and retention, areas where the city is already struggling. Marna McLain, an IT corporate manager who has worked for the city for 22 years, led the city’s COVID dashboard project completely remotely. She says “online tools allowed us to meet more easily – no travel time between meetings – share our screens, collaborate, and make changes on the fly, drastically reducing the product delivery time.” If the policy is implemented, she said, “Seven out of 10 of my staff told me that coming into the office is not sustainable, and they will have to retire sooner or look for another job. I will lose extremely talented people if this policy is implemented as is. I will spend my last few years desperately trying to fill these positions and train new staff. As a manager, shouldn't I be the one that decides what's best for the service?”

AFSCME says employees who work remotely report “improved productivity, better work-life balance, and reduced expenses associated with traveling to work.” Several workers at the protest spoke to child care concerns as well: Garza’s response was “for staff concerned about commuting and childcare, this summer will give them the time they need to make the necessary adjustments and accommodations.” AFSCME also notes that the policy may impact the city’s climate goal of 50% of trips to be made “using public transit, biking, walking, carpooling, or avoided altogether” by 2030. Reducing commutes to reduce emissions has long been a goal of Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea – indeed, the National Association of Counties recently honored the county for its goal to have 75% of county employees work from home permanently. At the protest, AFSCME’s Carol Guthrie urged, “If you can’t get it right, copy Travis County.”

Council Members Zo Qadri, Ryan Alter, and Vanessa Fuentes were at the protest in support of the workers, and Alter told the Chronicle several council members are considering action against the policy: “Amongst those I have been able to talk to there is concern that maybe this was just too rigid. ... We do need some people back in the office, but [telework] is actually benefiting our city in terms of productivity, the environment, and just the ability to keep them here.”

But Council has not taken any action yet. Guthrie says even though directors are already required to be back in office five days a week, the rest “is still up in the air. It starts in October. So for us, we have from now until the end of September, to see if we can't come up with a policy that is better than two days [in office]. Hopefully he'll take our input, and we can come up with a win-win situation that benefits the community, the employees, and his goals, because I believe his goals can be met without a body sitting in a cubicle.”

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Jesus Garza, AFSCME Local 1624, telework, remote work

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