State rescinds remote work options for employees

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

On Friday, March 15, at 4:34pm, at least some state employees received an email stating, “After much thought and deliberation, we are announcing the end of the telework policy that has been in place. Effective April 1, 2024, all employees will be required to return to the office.” 

But according to multiple state employees who reached out to RealWV, the announcement was a shock. It appears to apply to everyone, even those who were hired to work remotely going back years prior to the pandemic. And seemingly no one will explain to state employees why it’s happening. 

‘You will abide’

Jennifer, a state employee who spoke to RealWV only on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her state job, was hired more than a decade ago on the premise that she could telework for at least two days per week. 

“You cared so little – after I have been a good employee – about how this work would affect me, it’s devastating,” she said, in tears. “Frankly, one of the reasons I’ve stayed in my position so long was because I was hired to telework at times.”

“There’s probably this idea we just sit around and do laundry,” she shares. “It’s the opposite. I start early, I stay late, I work through lunch.”

She says the time she saves from getting ready and driving 35 minutes each way to work all goes to being a better employee. “It makes me a much more productive person. The office is full of distractions. I’m a better worker at home.”

Now, unless Jennifer is given accommodation (the email says you must have a disability to telework moving forward), she will no longer be able to telework. Despite being hired to do that more than a decade ago. She also says her superiors have told her that it’s not worth her time to pursue an accommodation. 

“It feels like this is what’s happening and you will abide,” she says of the sudden policy change. 

‘We were all blindsided’

Anna, who also spoke to RealWV only on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her state job, said, “We were all blindsided. Nobody knew this removal of telework was coming down the pike.” 

When Anna asked her bosses about the change, they told her, “They didn’t give us a reason. They said they want everybody in the office for collaboration.” 

Anna understands collaborating with colleagues; she says she does it every single day across multiple counties and multiple offices, whether she is working remotely or in the office. 

“The majority of people in my office were using it,” she says. “We were allowed two days a week for remote work. They were set days, so our offices were always open. The bosses have always told us how great telework is going. Why are we changing it all of the sudden?”

Anna raised several objections to the change–lack of office space for all workers, inadequate internet capacity, and lost work time for long travel distances. 

“Our office only gets a couple megs internet speed on a good day,” she said. “How are we supposed to get the 25 megs they want with more people there? Several people drive an hour each way. How do you expect them to get as much done losing two hours every day?”

Anna and her co-workers met with their boss, who’s a direct report to a cabinet secretary, to ask about the change. He reportedly told them, “I just do what I’m told.” 

Both Anna and Jennifer say that they were told not to speak to the media or make social media posts about the revised telework policy.

Justice administration speaks out

Gov. Jim Justice signs HB2026 in 2021, which he said “rolls out the red carpet” for remote workers in West Virginia.

While the Justice administration did not respond to RealWV’s request for comment on the policy change, Chief of Staff Brian Abraham did speak publicly about it late last week. 

“What we found out in more recent months is that some of the commissioners and some of the department heads were individually allowing their employees to be exempt from that return-to-work policy without our knowledge,” Abraham said.

He’s referring to an order from the administration in 2021 to withdraw remote work status following the initial wave of the pandemic. 

He went on to say that they expected every state employee to return to work in-person, with the exception of those who held telework status prior to the pandemic. 

However, all the state employees who reached out to RealWV and spoke off the record worked remotely prior to the pandemic. Still, they were told by their supervisors that the return to work notice applies to them as well. 

Governor ‘rolls out the red carpet’ for remote workers in 2021

Promotional picture by The Ascend Program, showcasing an outdoor recreation lifestyle possible for remote workers in West Virginia.

Gov. Jim Justice praised remote work in announcing the Ascend Program in 2021, an initiative funded by Brad and Alys Smith that pays remote workers to live and work in West Virginia. 

“Today, we are rolling out the red carpet and inviting remote workers from across the country to make Almost Heaven, West Virginia their new home,” Gov. Justice said on April 12, 2021.

Justice introduced HB2026 that year which laid the groundwork for the program. 

“By inviting these high-earning workers to move to the Mountain State, they will generate a significant and lasting economic impact,” said Secretary Mitch Carmichael of the Economic Development office. “Thanks to the Governor’s Remote Worker legislation…we’ve taken this incentive one step further and modernized our tax structure to be more friendly to this new and growing line of work. I could not be more excited to about this initiative.”

Now just three years later, Justice’s administration is pulling the plug on remote work for state employees. 

Will they stay or go? 

With state employees now having their remote work options suddenly removed after being in place for more than a decade, in some cases, the question becomes–will they stay or go? 

“I’ve already heard some saying they will look for other jobs where we can telework or be closer to home,” says Anna. “I’ve heard of other threats to quit. Everybody is waiting until April 1 to see if they go through with it or backpedal.”

Jennifer was more blunt in her assessment. “I have already started putting out feelers for what other options I might have.” 

Anna finds it hard to believe the state would sacrifice current, reliable employees who’ve been working productively for more than a decade remotely when they face such high vacancy rates already. 

“It just doesn’t make sense,” she adds. “We’re just looking for answers. If they’d just give us a reason or work with us.” 

“You feel voiceless,” says Jennifer. “They do a good job making you scared and making you feel voiceless. That’s equally frustrating and why I’m looking for other options.”

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