Called back into the office for a few days each week last year, Theresa Mendibles found herself traveling an hour to Santa Fe from her house in the Rio Rancho area to sit in virtual meetings or on phone calls she could have taken from home.
Mendibles works on procurement and state contracts for the state General Services Department and is one of many New Mexico government employees under orders to report back to the office next month. Like many, she’s not only facing a long commute but also a big question.
“Just because you’re in an office doesn’t mean you’re being productive,” she tells SFR, speaking as a member of a union that represents state employees.
Instead, Mendibles argues, her team has adjusted pretty seamlessly to telework.
If being in the office is supposed to improve customer service, as some state officials have argued it will, Mendibles says she never met with the public when she was back in the office for a period last year.
But soon, she’ll be trekking in anyway.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration announced in late November that it wanted employees working remotely to get back in the office at the start of the new year. That left state employees scrambling to find child care and bracing for office life amid a “tripledemic” of the flu, COVID-19 and RSV.
The ensuing fight has been messy. For example, a top official at the Public Education Department set out a completely different timeline to staff in a Dec. 20 email, explaining that employees would ease their way back into the office by April rather than rushing back in on Jan. 3.
The state’s secretary of education walked that back in an email two days later, telling employees to return in person on the first work day of 2023.
On Dec. 30, the State Personnel Office—amid pushback from labor unions representing state employees—said non-supervisory employees would not be required back in the office until Feb. 2.
Mendibles, who has worked with the state government for nine years after a career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is concerned that not all of her team will be returning to the office, though.
Some colleagues, living south of Albuquerque, face longer commutes than she does to Santa Fe.
Some may just decide it’s not worth it.
“It’s a very high probability that we are going to lose some people,” she says.
Largely missing from the Lujan Grisham administration’s push to get state employees back into the office, though, is an explanation for why exactly the state government needs to park workers in offices across Santa Fe in the first place. A governor who has enjoyed the financial backing of state employee unions is suddenly warring with them. But for what? While other states have closely studied telework for years and compiled reams of data on productivity—much of it favorable to the idea of letting employees clock in from home—New Mexico officials seem to have little in the way of a long-term plan for how the changing nature of work will impact state government.
While officials have been wringing their hands over empty desks, other state governments have embraced telework to cut costs, improve efficiency and induce recruits amid a tight labor market.
Rather than rethink the purpose of the state’s sprawling portfolio of office space—much of it on prime Santa Fe real estate—the Lujan Grisham administration has instead plowed ahead with plans to build more government offices smack in the middle of the capital city.
Several states—including some run by Republican governors not known for coddling public employees—were already expanding the use of telework for government workers when the pandemic hit.
Utah’s state government pushed telework partly as a bid to improve Salt Lake City’s poor air quality but also as a means of cutting costs and recruiting job candidates beyond commuting distance of the capitol. The state also reported increased performance from employees. So did Tennessee, which started experimenting with telework in 2016. That state’s telework program saw a reduction in sick leave as well as millions of dollars in savings on real estate costs. In Washington, one state department reported saving as much as $500,000 a year through the shift to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those savings came not just from reduced building maintenance and utility costs but also from a reduction in printing.
Elise Gurney, senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments, has been tracking the use of telework by state agencies around the country and says many have embraced it as a means of reaching a broader hiring pool.
“There’s interest in increasing diversity in state government. This can potentially be a tool for that,” she says.
But while state governments may be limited in adjusting pay or other benefits in negotiating hiring packages with individual job candidates, Gurney says states can offer remote work as an enticement.
She acknowledges that not every job in state government is suitable for telework.
“That really is an agency-by-agency consideration or even a position-by-position consideration,” she says.
Telework was uncommon in the Corrections Department, for example, according to data from August compiled by the Legislative Finance Committee. Telework was most common at the offices of the state auditor and treasurer as well as at the State Investment Council and in the Public Education Department.
All told, about 38% of the state’s roughly 21,000 employees were teleworking on any given day as of August, according to the Legislative Finance Committee. Almost all employees teleworked at least some of the time but the vast majority teleworked less than half the time.
Some prominent state officials have argued that telework has led to inefficiency.
“It is a terrible customer service experience,” then-state House Speaker Brian Egolf told a meeting of the Capitol Buildings Planning Commission in June, recounting that he left more than 20 messages for one state employee he’d been attempting to contact.
Critics of the governor’s push, including some state employees, counter that telework has become a scapegoat for a problem that predates the pandemic: Cuts to state government have left agencies understaffed.
“If you’re having trouble getting something done, it’s not because somebody’s working from home. It’s because somebody doesn’t exist. A position is vacant,” says Dan Secrist, president of Communications Workers of America Local 7076, which represents workers in several state agencies.
Secrist argues that cutting back on telework will only make the problem worse.
“We’ve got people who were hired during the period when telework was available with the understanding that teleworking would be available,” he says. “Some have impossible commutes.”
Secrist says about 260 employees in his bargaining units, which include the Public Education Department, Department of Health and Department of Cultural Affairs, will face round-trip commutes of more than 100 miles if required to be back in the office.
In addition, some agences like the Public Education Department say they don’t have enough space for every employee.
SFR asked whether the governor is concerned the state government will lose employees if it presses ahead with its return-to-office mandate. But Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, says the administration is “dedicated to making the state a great place to work.”
The governor’s proposed budget for the upcoming legislative session includes pay increases for state employees. Sacket referred other questions about the return-to-office policy to the State Personnel Office.
Director Teresa Padilla did not respond to repeated messages or a request for an interview.
In messages to state employees and in statements to other news organizations, Padilla has offered little reasoning for ordering workers back into the office besides citing concerns about constituent services and staff’s availability to the public.
SFR asked Padilla’s office for any data it has on telework’s impact on productivity in state government but never got a response.
Still, state officials point to another inefficiency they see in government employees’ use of telework: empty desks in buildings that are still maintained at taxpayer expense.
The state government has a sprawling physical footprint—about 22 million square feet of owned and leased building space that costs about $158 million each year to maintain and rent.
That includes about 1.5 million square feet the state owns in Santa Fe and another 450,000 square feet the state leases around the city.
The main Capitol campus alone—the Roundhouse and a warren of surrounding state buildings along with nearly 2,300 parking spaces—amounts to about 40 acres between Paseo de Peralta and Alameda.
The Legislative Finance Committee released a report in November that found the state is wasting millions of dollars on largely unused offices.
Committee staff recounted dropping in at a Human Services Department office in August and having to call an employee over just to get in the door. The office, rented from a private landlord at a cost of $102,500 a month, was empty.
Meanwhile, some agencies have reported lacking enough space for all employees to work in person.
The Legislative Finance Committee’s staff faulted state officials for failing to plan adequately, writing that the state had more office space than it needed even before the pandemic. That’s due in part to the state government’s tendency to calculate the space it needs based on the number of employees budgeted for each agency. But that does not account for the open and unfilled positions in many agencies. The committee has reported on “inefficient” use of office space for at least a decade, starting in 2012. Subsequent reports found no improvement.
“While other states have reduced facilities footprints and lease costs in response to telework, New Mexico is paying up to $18 million statewide for unoccupied office space,” the committee’s staff reported.
Meanwhile, the state is reviving plans to construct a new office building directly west of the Roundhouse at a cost of more than $200 million.
Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration last floated a plan to build a new executive office building. But the proposal didn’t get far. The plans called for demolishing four casitas on Don Gaspar, which the City of Santa Fe deemed historic, as well as the Concha Ortiz y Pino building on Galisteo.
That was all before the recession of 2008, ensuing cuts to state government and the subsequent rise of remote work during the pandemic.
Now, officials are renewing discussions with the city about ripping down the old casitas on Don Gaspar, and a plan unveiled over the summer calls for a three-story building west of the Capitol at Don Gaspar just north of Paseo de Peralta. The building would include more than 190,000 square-feet of office space and more than 700 parking spaces on three levels of an underground garage.
Anna Silva, director of the state’s Facilities Management Division, says the Legislative Finance Committee report does not paint an accurate picture of the state’s office space needs.
“To say there’s too much space, that was at a point in time before staff had returned to work. That’s not a completely accurate assessment,” she tells SFR.
Silva argues constructing a new office building would cut costs by allowing the state to get out of leases with private landlords and bring agencies together in one place near the Capitol. The building would provide office space for executive branch officials, such as the state treasurer and auditor—two offices that have relied heaviest on telework recently, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
If the state wanted to seize the new era of telework to cut down on the need for office space and allow more employees who work remotely to share offices, that’s not the plan.
“We’re looking at having a space for every individual,” Silva says.