Vt. officials take incremental approach to state workers’ return

Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 6:06 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont is continuing to make progress toward its July 4 reopening target, with more than 75% of eligible residents having been partially vaccinated. The pandemic has shifted countless aspects of life, including what it means to work in person or remotely. Calvin Cutler examines if and when state employees are heading back to the office.

When Governor Phil Scott declared a state of emergency last spring, Montpelier’s State street -- normally overflowing with lawmakers, visitors, and state employees -- was left looking like a ghost town as all of their work shifted online.

Now, as vaccinations are up, COVID cases are down, ad many businesses are reopening, state officials are mulling over when or if workers should go back to the office.

“It really is, I think, a morale booster for state employees. When they are happy and comfortable in their environment, like any employee, will be able to produce more for taxpayers,” said Steve Howard, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association.

A December survey sent to 8,000 executive branch employees showed that out of those who responded, 72% were working remotely, 19% in-person, and 9% a hybrid of the two. It’s unclear how much money the state has saved working remotely, but leaders estimate up to $4 million has been saved on travel alone.

But savings for some mean suffering for others. “There is no silver lining. It’s been devastating on our local businesses,” said Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser. He says state employees are the capital city’s lifeblood, keeping money flowing through the community. He also estimates that the city of Montpelier has lost $29 million in rooms, meals and alcohol sales. “There’s a public policy interest in bringing those employees back, perhaps more than the cost of doing business, because they are providing for the local economy.”

Right now, state employees are allowed to come back to the office while leaders are gauging how to maximize productivity. This fall, if workers want to stay remote, they’ll have to submit an application. “I think it’s going to evolve as restrictions are lifted, the vaccinations continue to roll out, and people are comfortable getting back to the workplace,” said Vt. Administration Secretary Suzanne Young.

Ultimately, Young says that the goal is to have employees feel comfortable while also being efficient. But now that remote work is part of our lives, it’s clear that Vermont’s workplaces and their effect on the community will never be the same.

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