Some senators want to ensure the remote workers are properly supervised and are productive.

In the fall of 2021 a group of state senators dropped in unannounced during business hours to visit the state Consumer Advocate’s office and found the lights out — literally. All but one member of the staff was working from home, senators were told.

That surprise visit along with complaints from the public and some state workers have led to sharp exchanges in the Senate Ways and Means Committee this year about telework, with senators demanding data on exactly who is working from home and why.

The issue has prompted pushback from the state’s largest public employees union. Members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association recently ratified a new telework policy that the union negotiated with the state, and more workers are now expected to ask to work from home.

DOE Department of Education building.
A number of employees at the Hawaii Department of Education and other state departments work from home. State senators think there should be more oversight. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

But that has raised some concerns in the Senate. In one pointed exchange last month, state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz quizzed Department of Human Resources Development Director Brenna Hashimoto about how teleworking employees are monitored.

“How do you know there’s work being done if there’s no deliverables?” Dela Cruz demanded. “You know what, you guys, this is taxpayer dollars. Residents are expecting services. You have got to ensure that.”

“Understood,” replied Hashimoto.

Dela Cruz continued: “We get calls, no one picking up in the office. They went to the office, nobody’s there. We visited DCCA (Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs), nobody in the office. This is serious.”

Dela Cruz said in an interview he does not oppose telework per se, but lawmakers are questioning whether telework policies are being applied consistently from department to department, and from one employee to the next.

They also want to ensure the remote workers are properly supervised, and are productive.

But Randy Perreira, executive director of the HGEA, criticized what he called “unspecified allegations” about abuses of work-from-home arrangements.

“We’re not aware of the abuses. We certainly don’t condone people who are just goofing off and not earning their keep,” he said.

“If there are reasons that some senators would have that working remotely doesn’t work, I think they should share that information with the state, and it (should) be factored in by the state as they determine who can and should be eligible for any amount of remote work,” Perreira said.

The intense interest the committee is showing in state government's work-from-home arrangements was sparked in part by the 2021 visit by members to the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs' offices in downtown Honolulu.

"When we went to the Consumer Advocate's office, there was nobody there except for the Consumer Advocate himself," Dela Cruz said in an interview. "The lights were off, everything. We didn't think anybody was there."

Other offices in the same building were fully functioning, and it became obvious various divisions of government were implementing telework in different ways.

William Nhieu, spokesman for DCCA, said the senators visited the office as a new coronavirus variant was surging through the community, and Executive Director Dean Nishina allowed his staff to work from home. Nhieu said that office is not a "public facing office" that often deals with walk-ins.

This year the Senate budget committee gathered detailed data from state departments on who is working from home, and Dela Cruz said those reports raised more questions about how employee performance is being monitored.

"The only ones who actually had some type of accountability record was the Attorney General's Office," Dela Cruz said, adding that office kept records of billable hours for its attorneys, but the other departments had no comparable data.

The main concern of the senators is "how do you know what work is being done and how much is being done?" he said.

Another issue is training for supervisors. Many in management have no experience overseeing employees who are working from home, Dela Cruz said. Hashimoto assured the Ways and Means committee that training will be provided.

Nationally and locally private employees are demanding more flexible work arrangements even as the pandemic ebbs, and some job applicants simply won't accept positions that require office hours. But exactly how those new workplace demands will change state and county government is still playing out.

The Department of Human Resources Development reported last month that nearly 4,000 of 17,000 civil service positions in the state executive branch were vacant as of November. That statistic does not include the University of Hawaii system or the Department of Education.

Departments spent much of 2022 rapidly trying to fill vacant positions, but "year after year, employees are changing positions or leaving state service faster than departments can fill vacancies, causing the vacancy rate to increase," according to the report.

It also noted that 33% of the workforce is now eligible to retire or will be in the next five years.

All of that suggests many workers and job applicants have leverage as they try to negotiate their working conditions, including work-from-home arrangements.

Dept of Human Services.
The state Department of Human Services reported 670 employees are working from home part time or full time, which is considerably more than most state agencies. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Hashimoto told lawmakers that "telework is really intended for high-functioning, high-performing employees who need little supervision, who are self-starters, who can execute their jobs without being present. It's not conducive to all situations and all employees."

State Attorney General Anne Lopez told senators in another budget hearing that her office has been using telework as a "job retention incentive" for a number of deputy attorneys general.

"We have currently 31 vacancies with our deputies," Lopez told the committee on Jan. 24. "Hiring deputies is not easy to do. It's difficult to be competitive with the private sector. Remote work is a valuable economic incentive to those deputies."

She said staff are allowed to work from home for a maximum of three days per week, and deputies are required to fill out time sheets that describe how many hours were spent working and what work was done.

But senators are questioning how work-from-home is being implemented in other agencies. During a Jan. 11 budget hearing, Sen. Donna Kim recounted cases where employees, including a university system administrator, worked from home for extended periods because they needed to care for family members.

"We don't want to sound like we're not compassionate," Kim said, but those employees should either take leave or have caregivers to support them while they work, instead of simultaneously working from home and serving as caregivers themselves.

"Then the other employees see that, and they don't feel that that's fair, there's a morale problem, and then they all want to do it. It's a bad example," she said.

In another budget hearing for the Department of Accounting and General Services on Jan. 17, Dela Cruz read aloud from a report on telework that "provides an enhanced work-life balance" as the reason given for authorizing one DAGS employee to work from home.

In another case, the reason given was "facility space optimization." Other listed reasons including "to accommodate individual's needs for social distancing," "convenient when just as or more efficient," and "enhancement of employee health and safety."

"You have pages and pages of (employees listed as) teleworking," and some employees were working from home five days a week, Dela Cruz said.

State Comptroller Keith Regan said DAGS is planning a "complete reset" of its work-from-home policy and will recall all employees to re-evaluate who may be allowed to continue to telework.

But Regan told the committee his administrators assure him they constantly monitor their employees and are in regular communication with them.

The Department of Human Services reported that 670 of its employees work from home, although DHS spokeswoman Amanda Stevens said one-third of those staffers telework for one day a week.

DHS Director Cathy Betts told senators the pandemic hasn't ended for her department because DHS still has employees out with Covid-19 and has had employees who died from Covid. She assured senators that her department has performance appraisals for "every single one of our employees."

She explained that some are allowed to have flexible schedules because they are caregivers for vulnerable elders. "I couldn't forgive myself if someone was in my office and contracted it (Covid-19) and brought it home to someone with an impaired condition," she said.

The HGEA's executive director said remote working is something all employers including private companies will have to deal with because employees are demanding it.

"We saw during the pandemic in some agencies where it clearly worked to the advantage of the state, where people were more productive and just got things done," Perreira said.

"There do in fact have to be safeguards and there are safeguards in place in this policy. If somebody is not doing what they're supposed to be doing and they're goofing off, then by all means action can be taken to return them to work and take disciplinary action," Perreira said.

Hashimoto told senators that the old state telework policy adopted was so "prescriptive and onerous" that it discouraged state managers from even considering that option.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz says he doesn't oppose work-from-home arrangements but wants assurances they are productive. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That changed when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the state implemented an emergency telework option that waived many of the old requirements, allowing employees to telework full time.

The emergency policy also allowed some to work from home to facilitate child care or other caregiving responsibilities.

But Hashimoto said the new telework agreement negotiated with the union requires that someone other than the teleworking employee be available to handle any necessary caregiving.

Some state managers have been striking a balance where employees work from home on some days and report to work on others, Perreira said.

In other cases managers have been reluctant to approve requests from employees who want to work remotely. Perreira said he expects more workers to put in requests to work from home now that the new policy has been negotiated and ratified.

"After some training, we will go through the implementation process," he said. "The program remains one that is at management's discretion to determine when and if the circumstances allow employees to work remotely under some strict circumstances."

"But it shouldn't be the Senate's business to get into what the union, of behalf of the employees, and the executive branch would negotiate," Perreira said. "That's an operational thing. They should be concerned with legislating and being the keepers of the purse, not butting into what the governor and the unions would do with respect to working conditions."

Dela Cruz said the committee is less concerned with the policy the unions have negotiated than with how it is being implemented. He predicted that once the issues of supervision and productivity expectations are resolved, the state should be able to embrace a shared workspace approach for some employees.

That could eventually reduce the need for office space and the amount of rent the state must pay, but that hasn't happened yet.

"It is a useful tool, but it has to be done in a way that we still have productive employees," he said.

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