Youngkin plans to end most remote work for state employees

Move marks a major shift for workers after more than two years of permissive work-from-home policies

By: - May 5, 2022 7:17 pm

Flanked by Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and House Speaker Todd Gilbert, Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers his first State of the Commonwealth address on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo by Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Gov. Glenn Younkin is ending remote work for state employees, bringing workers almost entirely back to the office by July 5.

The administration formally announced the policy in a news release on Thursday evening, unveiling a new state telework policy updated “for the first time in more than a decade,” according to a statement from the governor. The release did not include a copy of the new policy, and it’s unclear how it’s been changed from earlier versions.

But a Zoom call earlier in the day with more than 350 staff members at the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services revealed more details about the return-to-work plan. In the video call, later uploaded to the agency’s YouTube channel, DBHDS Commissioner Nelson Smith told employees to expect an email from the agency’s chief of staff detailing the return-to-work policy on Friday morning.

Smith appears to have been participating in the late afternoon call from the road after spending the day at a conference for local community service boards. He told workers that he would be authorized to allow one day of telework on a “case by case basis” that employees could request through their supervisors.

“The administration, as we’ve been going around talking to a lot of different people, all the different agencies with the governor this morning, we get the sense there’s a need for us to return to the office,” Nelson said.

“And it’s not a punitive thing,” he added. “I want you to know it’s something I think we all can get excited about.”

The move aligns with Youngkin’s push for a return to normalcy as Virginia continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor’s updated action plan for managing the virus emphasizes keeping the state “open for business,” and he’s frequently opposed mask and vaccination mandates in schools and other settings.

But few details of the new plan for state employees appear to have been solidified at the time of Nelson’s call with staff. The commissioner said he didn’t anticipate any changes for employees whose jobs are conducted almost entirely remotely, including workers in the department’s licensing and human rights divisions. He also referenced staff members who live out of state, saying the department would need to submit waivers for continued remote work.

According to the governor’s release, state employees will be required to apply for teleworking options by May 20. Requests will be reviewed by June 3, though the administration provided no additional details on what criteria workers would need to meet.

Some state staffers, though, say the shift could represent a major logistical hurdle for the administration after more than two years of largely permissive work-from-home policies. In many cases, the potential for remote work has been a major recruitment incentive amid an intensely competitive hiring environment, according to phone calls Thursday with two separate state employees from two different departments who asked not to be named.

Furthermore, they said, other agencies have hired dozens of new staff members to manage pandemic-related challenges without increasing office capacity due to the ability to work from home, and the administration could be facing a wave of resignations from staffers on the brink of retirement or without good alternatives for child care.

The governor, though, framed the decision as a vital step in the state’s pandemic recovery.

“We know that creative, innovative, and effective solutions for all Virginians occur with regular, in-person interaction by our incredible workforce here in the commonwealth,” Youngkin said in a statement.

“These updates balance the demands of government services with the needs of our public servants,” he added.

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.