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Austin city employees warn new in-office policy could drive people to quit

Austin City Council member Zohaib "Zo" Qadri address city employees protesting a new telework policy going into effect next week.
Haya Panjwani
/
KUT
Austin City Council member Zohaib "Zo" Qadri address city employees protesting a new telework policy going into effect next week.

Dozens of City of Austin employees protested new policies requiring them to come into the office more frequently after three years of being able to work from home.

Marna McLain, who manages Geographic Information System services for the city, said she fears she'll lose over half her 10-person team if they're unable to work remotely.

"Seven have told me that coming into the office is not sustainable, and they will have to retire sooner or look for another job," she said at a protest Thursday outside City Hall.

The policy was introduced two weeks ago by interim City Manager Jesús Garza. It requires all executives to be in the office five days a week starting Monday, and all non-executive staff to be in the office for a minimum of three days starting in October.

“Foundational to my commitment is the reality that, unlike many other employers, we are primarily a public-facing organization,” Garza said in his memo. “It is imperative, in my opinion, that we work to ensure the public’s trust. We cannot completely do so if we are not present or responsive to their needs."

City employees' remote work schedules have been up to each department since the beginning of the pandemic.

The city’s employee union, the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the new rules were developed hastily and lacked data-driven policymaking.

"We've seen that there's a model in local government for establishing good policies, and it's looking at the data, doing a long, deliberative study," AFSCME president Ben Suddaby said. "That's not what interim City Manager Garza has laid out. This seems like a very capricious, at-a-whim decision, and it's not based on data."

Garza's office said the policy did not happen "overnight."

"For staff concerned about commuting and childcare, this summer will give them the time they need to make the necessary adjustments and accommodations," it said in a statement. "We encourage them to talk to their supervisors.”

The union is pushing to postpone the changes until March. It also said the move would be bad for the environment.

"I feel like this new policy is in opposition to [the city's] climate equity plan," Austin Energy employee Robert Eby said. "City of Austin should be leading by example. The things we do with the city, businesses and other government organizations follow suit. We need to be leaders."

Ryan Alter said he and other City Council members were informed of the policy change before the memo was released and told Garza teleworking should not be one-size-fits-all.

Parts of the policy are scheduled to go into effect Monday. Alter said he believes it could get off to a rocky start.

"I think the outpouring today shows us that we are going to have some some difficulties and some challenges," he said. "But I think we are up to the task to figure out how we get it right."

Haya Panjwani is a general assignment reporter, with a focus on Travis County. Got a tip? Email her at hpanjwani@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @hayapanjw.
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