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Although legislation expires during 2024 session, Idaho policy restricts remote work for state employees • Idaho Capital Sun

Idaho state government agencies must ensure that only 20% of their workforce is outside the office. This is under a new policy restricting remote work that was introduced this spring.

That follows Proposed legislation in the Idaho Legislature to create policies restricting remote work in Idaho Code.

The Idaho Human Resources Department implemented March 31 a new policy restricting remote workAgency administrator Janelle White told the Idaho Capital Sun in an email.

The policy, introduced in January, requires agencies to ensure that no more than 20% of their permanent workforce scheduled to work in a day is out of the office. The regulation does not apply to employees who carry out field work. The policy provides a rural exemption that applies to eligible employees who have an agency telework permit and reside at least 50 miles from their agency's nearest office in Idaho.

White said the policy applies to all state agencies that report through Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who she said decided to implement the policy in collaboration with staff, state lawmakers and Idaho's human resources department.

“We wanted to achieve consistency across the country and, within that consistency, a balance between in-office work to promote teamwork and idea sharing and remote work to promote work-life balance,” White wrote. “…The overall percentage gives agency directors the flexibility to determine what works best for their agency while providing consistency across the country.”

Other elected officials may pursue their own policies, she said.

The policy change has had minimal impact on employees and turnover does not appear to be increasing, she said.

“While the change was unwelcome for some state employees, most were minimally affected and we did not see a major increase in turnover,” White wrote. “Our governor believes in making Idaho the place our children and grandchildren want to stay, and his focus on family extends to our state employees.” Our goal with this new policy is to balance work and “We continue to recruit and retain outstanding public servants while remaining focused on our core mission as public servants.”

To telework under the new policy, employees must obtain permission from their supervisor and agency. Before working remotely, employees must complete telework training, the policy states.

According to the directive, teleworking is not an employee right. Agencies have discretion over the use of remote work and the use of telework “may be terminated at any time without notice,” the policy states.

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Why Idaho policymakers restricted remote work for state agency employees

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said complaints from constituents led the Legislature to limit remote work this year. Senate Bill 1261.

Even now, when he calls a state agency, it's difficult to talk to anyone, Guthrie said.

Idaho Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, listens to action on the Senate floor at the state Capitol on Jan. 9, 2023. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

“It’s not as good as an in-person conversation,” Guthrie told the Idaho Capital Sun in a phone interview. “And anyone who says otherwise, we just have to agree to disagree, because that’s not the same thing. And the same goes for the people in the office. When you have to connect with someone at home doing laundry or watching kids or dogs barking or whatever and they're distracted. And that's exactly what happens. The quality of the interaction is not as good as a face-to-face conversation. …Or even on the phone when someone is in the office and has access to all of their data and information.”

Guthrie said lawmakers worked with the governor's office last summer on Idaho's policy restricting remote work.

White said telecommuting rates vary by agency, but some agencies had up to 30-40% of employees working remotely.

At the Idaho Department of Health and Human Services, which employs more than 2,900 people, 37 employees mentioned telework in their exit interviews or to human resources representatives, said health department spokesman AJ McWhorter.

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That's about 20% of the exit interviews for this fiscal year, McWhorter said. The fiscal year ends in June.

The agency's overall classified employee turnover rate was 13.3% from July 2023 to April 2024, slightly lower than the previous year's turnover rate of 14.6%, according to Health Department data.

The Idaho Department of Health and Human Services has spent about $124,000 in operating costs to bring staff back to the office, but expects the final cost to be around $300,000, McWhorter said. None of the costs include purchasing additional space, he said.

Why legislation restricting remote work for government employees failed to advance in Idaho

When the policy was created, it delayed this year's bill limiting remote work, said House Speaker Mike Moyle, who sponsored the bill, Senate Bill 1261.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle (R, Star)
In this file photo, House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, speaks on the phone on the House floor in the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021, when he was still House Majority Leader. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The policy is essentially the same as the policy proposed in the bill, Moyle told the Sun. The bill wanted a 15% cap on employees working from home.

“But when the governor came out with his policy, which was essentially the same as the bill, that kind of stalled the thing,” Moyle told the Sun in a telephone interview. “I think the intent was to wait and see how the policy works and then try to codify it next year. The problem won’t go away.”

Near the end of the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers announced Senate Bill 1191 which also aimed to limit remote work. That bill, like Senate Bill 1261 this year, did not pass the Legislature.

Idaho's human resources department worked closely with the Legislature to understand why it passed legislation restricting remote work, White said. Part of the feedback was to ensure that when Idahoans call state agencies, their calls are answered with limited background noise such as dogs barking, and to avoid technical issues such as poor internet connection, she said.

“Many of their concerns were legitimate, and we felt that updating our policy to clarify expectations for telework practices would address the concerns without the need for legislation,” White wrote.

The new policy has similarities to Senate Bill 1261 and includes the same feedback for the bill, but is not based on it, White said.

Anna Harden

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