When the pandemic demonstrated that working from home can be a viable option, the Hawaii Legislature passed a law requiring the state to reduce the amount of office space it leases by 10% in five years. The idea was employees can function efficiently by teleworking and the state can save on rent.

But a new report by the state Department of Accounting and General Services shows that isn’t happening yet.

Act 219, which was approved in 2021, praised the use of telework during the coronavirus pandemic and said it should continue. The new law instructed the state comptroller to determine what support or infrastructure state workers need to do their jobs from home and mandated a 10% reduction of space leased by the state by July 1, 2026.

However, the state has actually increased its leasing since then, and DAGS sees more problems ahead. “One of the challenges (is) the everchanging staffing levels of the state,” according to the report.

House floor session.
Lawmakers instructed the state Department of General Services to reduce the amount of office space the state leases due to increased telework. But that hasn’t happened yet. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

For example, DAGS calculates that the decision by former Gov. David Ige and lawmakers to peel off the law enforcement functions within the Department of Public Safety to create a new Law Enforcement Department will require another 20,000 square feet of leased space. That new department “cannot be housed in any state office building,” according to DAGS.

New Positions Need Space

The progress report published late last month adds that “the creation of new positions to existing offices which do not have the space to house the additional employees pose another challenge.”

The report shows DAGS was leasing 503,179 square feet of space statewide on July 1, 2021, when the new law took effect. That increased to 509,139 square feet a year later, according to the comptroller’s office. That was an increase of about 1%, and a step in the wrong direction.

DAGS points out in its report that some unusual issues cropped up since the new law passed that affected state leasing.

For example, the state signed agreements to provide more than 5,800 square feet of office space for the state Department of Health’s Covid-19 contact tracers, and another 1,760 square feet of space was leased to relocate programs from the Wahiawa Civic Center while redevelopment of a new civic center is underway.

The Employees Retirement System reduced its leased space by 2,640 square feet, but the Attorney General’s Office needed more space, adding nearly 1,400 square feet to the total, according to DAGS.

Architectural rendering of Wahiawa Civic Center
The report says some longer term projects such as construction of the Wahiawa Civic Center will help reduce the amount of leased space. Architects Hawaii

The report details a number of near-term projects that involve moving state agencies’ offices out of leased space and into state buildings, and some longer term projects such as construction of the Wahiawa Civic Center that will reduce the amount of leased space.

For example, the relocation of the state sheriff division operations from leased space in Kakaako to the Kalanimoku Building at South Beretania and Punchbowl Street should also help, according to the report.

“The preference of many programs is to remain in the Capital District and within walking distance to their administrative offices,” according to the report. “However, there are no vacancies in state buildings within the district to accommodate these requests.”

To respond to that demand, the report says DAGS is “exploring options to purchase an existing office building” in the Capitol District to create more state-owned space there. The report does not identify the building, and DAGS did not respond to a request for comment on that plan.

The DAGS report mentions only a handful of examples of the use of teleworking to reduce leased state office space, mostly by the health department.

‘Telework Is Here To Stay’

State lawmakers have introduced a number of measures in recent years aimed at encouraging the state to adopt telework policies, but the proposals were opposed by representatives of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the United Public Workers, and the state Department of Human Resources Development.

The public worker unions and DHRD said the details of any telework policy must be negotiated with the state under the formal collective bargaining process. Then-DHRD Director Ryker Wada predicted in written testimony last year that “telework is here to stay,” but said its implementation must be negotiated.

Newly appointed DHRD Director Brenna Hashimoto said Tuesday in an interview the state and HGEA have reached tentative agreement on teleworking, but she declined to discuss details of the deal until it is finalized.

Randy Perreira, executive director of the HGEA, said the newly negotiated agreement essentially updates a work-from-home policy that has been in place for years. The new agreement could be ratified by the union membership as early as the end of this week, he said.

State and county employees won’t be working remotely all the time, “but I really think a significant number of people could work remotely at least part of the time,” he said.

Management will still have the tools it needs under the amended agreement to ensure employees are productive when they work from home, and anecdotes from the pandemic suggest some employees proved to be more productive when given that extra flexibility, Perreira said.

Perreira predicted even employees approved to work from home will likely be required to return to the office at least once or twice a week.

The pandemic has changed employees’ expectations about where they work. “Remote work for some has almost become like an issue of entitlement,” Perreira said, adding that some workers in the private sector refuse to even consider jobs that require they be based full time in an office.

As for the public sector, Perreira said top Hawaii government managers seem quite willing to allow remote work, but middle managers have been more reluctant. He expressed hope that Gov. Josh Green’s administration can resolve that “disconnect” between different levels of management.

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, who was the lead introducer of the bill that became Act 219, was traveling last week and declined comment on the DAGS report because she had not yet seen it.

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