By Erica C. Barnett
Starting later this year, thousands of city employees who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic will be required to come in to the office at least two days a week under Mayor Bruce Harrell’s “One Seattle” return-to-office plan. Mayoral spokesman Jamie Housen said that number is a minimum; “in some cases, some units may have to bring their employees in more days per week based off department business needs.”
In a mid-March email announcing the city’s new policy, which will have to be bargained with various city unions, Harrell offered his “deepest gratitude to the 65% of City workers who have been working in person and in the field throughout the pandemic,” adding that for the remaining workers, returning to the office “represents a momentous step forward in [the] pandemic response and in our adjustment toward a new normal.”
Among those who will have to return to work at least part-time later this year are about 85 call center workers employed by Seattle Public Utilities. The majority, according to PROTEC17 union representative Steven Pray, are women of color, many of whom “can’t afford to live in Seattle” and commute from places like Kent, Tacoma, and Renton.
An internal memo preparing employees for the transition said that the city “provides critical functions to the community that require in-person customer service and operational needs,” adding that bringing people back to the office was a way of reducing “inequities and disparities within our workforce, while building team culture through increased collaboration and relationship building.”
But many city employees who’ve been working from home for more than two years prefer things as they are—and not all of them consider working from home a “privilege,” as Harrell put it in an email recently quoted by the Seattle Times.
According to a recent survey of about 3,000 city employees represented by the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC7), 68 percent of city employees “indicated that the City’s return to office plans were negatively impacting their stress level, morale and productivity,” and 23 percent said they were thinking about quitting their jobs “due to return to office plans,” according to a summary of the survey provided by the union.
Among those who will have to return to work at least part-time later this year are about 85 call center workers employed by Seattle Public Utilities. The majority, according to PROTEC17 union representative Steven Pray, are women of color, many of whom “can’t afford to live in Seattle” and commute from places like Kent, Tacoma, and Renton. Call center workers start at about $27 an hour and can make up to $35 an hour—more than private-sector call center workers, but still among the lowest 10 percent of city job classifications.
PubliCola spoke to one call center representative who said their daily commute used to be two hours each way; now, “it breaks down to five minutes or so, so that really helps.” The representative, who did not want to be identified, said, “I know very few people [at work] who live in the city.”
The representative we spoke to personally looks forward to returning to the office part-time, but knows that “a lot of people are holding out faith that they’ll continue to get to work from home. … Our morale has never been higher than since we went home. Originally, there was some shock, but now people are really, really happy.”
As for the argument that people need to be in the same physical space to “build team culture through increased collaboration and relationship building,” Pray said answering calls all day doesn’t really involve much collaborative work. “Of course they work as a team and they’ll help each other out, but it’s not like other groups in the city where there’s ten people putting their heads together, thinking about a problem, brainstorming, and putting ideas out there.”
By the city’s own standards, working from home is working for the customer contact center and utility customers. On average, call times—a measure of how quickly a caller’s problem is resolved—have gone down more than a minute, and the time it takes to answer calls has decreased dramatically. When emergency outages happen, people can start taking calls right away, instead of driving in to downtown Seattle through extreme weather or in the middle of the night.
Harrell’s new return-to-office policies won’t take effect until this fall, after labor negotiations wrap up, but any return-to-work mandate will have a major impact on the work lives of thousands of city employees, including many who prefer to work from home. According to the Seattle Department of Human Resources, around 4,500 city employees have arrangements allowing them to work from home two or three days a week. That number includes 2,300, or about 18 percent of city employees, who currently work from home four days a week or more, which would put them out of compliance with the proposed policy.
Meanwhile, down the street from the Seattle Municipal Tower and City Hall, King County Executive Dow Constantine has taken a more relaxed position on “returning to normal”; according to a spokesman for Constantine, the county has no official policy requiring employees to come back to the office; instead, individual departments are making those decisions.