By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Private sector employees long ago returned to their places of work as the pandemic began to ease. But government workers in Gov. Tony Evers’ administration get a pass — if they fill out a form.
Evers’ extremely relaxed “workplace flexibilities” rules are supposed to be coming to an end next week, in concert with declining cases of COVID-19. “Normal state operations” are expected to resume immediately following the July 4 holiday. State office space occupancy had been limited to 25 percent in May, according to Department of Personnel Management guidelines.
But the directive for state employees to get back to the office apparently isn’t so much an order as it is a suggestion.
Employees in the departments of Transportation, Administration, the Public Service Commission, among others, in recent weeks have received a “telecommute” form. They can sign a telecommuting agreement (HR 1408) and continue to work remotely — if their supervisors approve.
The agreements are due Friday.
The form, obtained by Empower Wisconsin, doesn’t require employees to provide a reason why they can’t return to the office. It merely asks applicants to acknowledge they have the necessary technology for telecommuting and agree to a list of remote working expectations.
Employees must verify that their “remote workplace is ergonomically sound and free from distractions, and agree to abide by all records retention and data security guidelines.”
Comfort is key, because the agreement insists applicants understand their workplaces are an extension of the agency and that employees are “governed by the provisions of worker’s compensation in the event of workplace injury.” At the same time, the agreement pours on the legalese. Employees, their “heirs and assigns” must release the state and all of its subagents from any liability arising from injury, death or property damage while telecommuting.
Restrictions and conditions apparently vary from agency to agency. Some require telecommuters to be in the office at least a couple days a week. Others are much less restrictive.
And there appears to be no end date on telecommunicating in the Evers administration.
It’s not clear how many state employees are opting out of “normal state operations.” Evers’ Department of Administration did not return a request for comment.
But the latest extended stay-at-home option further underscores the governors’ resistance to putting state employees back in the buildings taxpayers are paying for.
In March, Evers vetoed a Republican-led bill requiring him to come up with a plan within three weeks to return state workers to their offices.
In his veto message, he said the work that state employees were doing remotely “should not be discounted or demeaned.” The unemployment insurance debacle at the Department of Workforce Development, the failure of agencies like the Department of Natural Resources to complete basic inspections, and myriad other instances of bureaucratic bungling contradict Evers’ defense of indefinitely shutting down in-person government.
“This is indicative of the governor’s inability to understand the value of work,” state Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls), vice chair of the Assembly’s Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, said of the Evers administration’s extended telecommuting policy. “How much longer do we have to pretend that employees can’t work in state buildings while the rest of Wisconsin has returned to work and employers are begging for employees.
“The governor has made it clear that Wisconsin is closed for business,” Brandtjen said.