AUGUSTA, Maine – Working from home or having hybrid schedules will continue to be an option for some state employees while Maine transitions further away from protective measures enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to its top administrator.
The Tuesday email from Department of Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Kirsten Figueroa to employees says departments will manage their own transition plans from starting July 6 to October 3 of this year. Those plans could range from having employees return to on-site completely to a hybrid model for those who have been teleworking. A limited number of employees will be allowed to remain remote full time.
Maine has been relatively cautious in bringing employees back during the pandemic. It required workers to wear masks after Gov. Janet Mills’ rescinded a face covering mandate in public places last spring. Up to an estimated 85 percent of employees were allowed to work from home at some point during the pandemic. But they also clashed when the union accused the state of not giving good data about how it was handling remote work.
The top employees’ union had pushed for as many employees to work remotely as possible, which is believed to have shielded many from getting sick, although offices closed periodically. The state also cited major emissions reductions from the shift by late 2020.
“We know that telework is here to stay, in one form or another, and have asked Departments to be flexible and to strongly consider the hybrid format as possible,” Figueroa said.
Departments have been directed to consider issues such as ensuring employee work-life balance, cybersecurity, managing supervisory duties and the public health environment when determining which employees should return to the office or remain remote, said Kelsey Goldsmith, a spokesperson for the budget department.
The state put in place a telework policy last summer that allows employees to negotiate telework provisions, provided they and the state can agree on the number of hours and where the work takes place. Eligibility is based upon how critical it is for that employee to do on-site work and their ability to work effectively outside of the office.
The Maine Service Employees Association welcomes a more defined policy, but Alec Maybarduk, the executive director of the union, said the state should be cautious if it wants most employees to return to on-site work. Many employees are still wary of getting sick from COVID-19 or have taken on caregiver or childcare roles at home.
He also cited a desire for more flexible jobs in the market right now that could be critical to attracting and retaining a workforce. Employees could face additional costs if they need to start commuting to work more often with rising gas prices as well, something Maybarduk said the state should also consider.
“Any return-to-work policies should really be narrowly focused on operational needs,” he said.