Voters in Maui County will soon decide the fate of a proposal that aims to reduce commutes for government employees as a way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

Maui County locator map

The measure would establish a county policy to promote climate change adaptation, including by implementing guidelines to allow some county employees to telework or have alternative work schedules.

But it’s unclear whether the shift to work-from-home policies is helping the planet or hurting it.

The county already has a union-approved telework policy in place and some departments have staff now working from home or on alternative schedules, according to County Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita. It’s unclear what other measures such a policy might grow to encompass.

A photo of Kihei traffic
Telework may help calm traffic, but its effect on greenhouse gas emissions is under studied. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The Nov. 8 ballot question is one of 13 proposals to alter Maui County’s charter that voters will consider this election. Voters will also consider reforms geared at increasing transparency in law enforcement, boosting access to public records and establishing a bilingual government.

With 2,600 employees, Maui County embraced telework for certain workers in early 2020 not as a way to curb greenhouse gasses but as a public health measure brought on by the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Office of Council Services is one of several departments that continues to telework.

“This is basically an attempt to codify what we’re already doing,” said council member Kelly King, who is the chairwoman of the Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee. “There’s no reason not to vote for it.”

Click the graphic above to register for the event. 

Of course, not all jobs are conducive to telework. First responders and most laborers at departments such as parks and recreation, for example, can’t perform their duties at home. But most bureaucratic jobs can be done at home.

Research shows that it would be a mistake, however, to assume that telework necessarily drives down greenhouse gas emissions.

Studies in other states and internationally indicate that working from home can actually lead people to increase their vehicle mileage, said Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Coordinator Leah Laramee.

“Unfortunately it’s a little bit inconclusive, but what we see is when people start teleworking they often make more frequent, shorter trips to go do their errands,” she said.

In situations where working from home leads a person to increase their mileage, telework policies can be counterproductive to climate change goals. Yet even for remote workers who find themselves driving more miles, telework tends to help with traffic mitigation since people can choose to run their errands outside of rush hour.

 

“The message I really want to send is not to pooh pooh teleworking, but to share with folks to be more conscientious of how they’re traveling and to make sure they’re bundling their trips,” Laramee said. “We want to make sure that we’re being very thoughtful in the way we move and the way we travel.”

Another factor is energy efficiency. It might require more energy to have 50 people working from home than together in one centralized office.

But telework could ease the demand for energy during the evening peak hours when many families come home from work to cook dinner, shower, launder their clothes and watch TV. This might reduce the need for oil-fired generators that rev up at night to meet the bulk of Hawaii’s energy demand in the absence of sunlight that powers solar panels.

There are no studies examining the impact of telework on greenhouse gas emissions in Hawaii.

During the early days of the pandemic, when most people stayed home from work or school, people did drive less. But the number of vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, has increased since then even as many still telework.

In Hawaii, experts predict this metric of VMT will continue to climb year over year.

“I can’t say for sure what the long-term impact of this proposal would be,” said Nishita, the Maui deputy managing director. “However, the county does support reducing our impact on climate change, taking better care of our natural environment, reducing traffic impacts and striving to conduct the people’s work more effectively and efficiently.”

If voters approve question No. 13 on the ballot, it would cost taxpayers less than $100,000 to implement, according to a financial analysis by County Auditor Lance Taguchi.

Eleven of the 13 proposals came from the Charter Commission, which is tasked every 10 years with reviewing the county’s constitutional document and finding possible ways to improve it. The County Council, meanwhile, put forward the other two questions that ask if voters want to create community water authorities and allow employees to work remotely to combat climate change. The council can put forward proposals during elections every two years.

Voters are expected to receive their ballots in the mail for the general election by mid-October.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

An Important Note

If you consider nonprofit, independent news to be an essential service that helps keep our community informed, please include Civil Beat among your year-end contributions.

And for those who can, consider supporting us with a monthly gift, which helps keep our content free for those who need it most.

This year, we are making it our goal to raise $225,000 in reader support by December 31, to support our news coverage statewide and throughout the Pacific. Are you ready to help us continue this work?

About the Author