Connecticut’s Republican-leaning legislative districts, many in Fairfield County and other affluent parts of the state, have lots of upper-class “knowledge workers” who are able to work from home – more than in less affluent, Democratic-leaning districts.
That may explain why Republicans largely have been quiet on the question of state employees teleworking, says one expert in Connecticut politics who recently authored a book about the Connecticut GOP.
However, some political operators say it would be hard for Republicans to criticize a practice in which the legislature itself engages. Republican elected officials like teleworking as much as anyone else, and it would be seen as hypocritical to knock it, these sources said.
The state employee telework policy, effective January 2022, flowed from a December 2021 state arbitrator ruling that thousands of eligible state employees have a right to apply to their agencies to telework four days a week. The ruling also gave any employee who applies to telework and is required to work in the office more than one day a week a right to appeal to state arbitrators.
The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont sought to cap teleworking at levels set by individual state agencies. But while the two-term Democratic governor did not support the union position that there should be no limits on telework, he also has not spoken out against it or called on state employees to return to the office more frequently.
In fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30 last year, 13,175 state employees applied to telework, according to data from the Department of Administrative Services (DAS). Only about 6.3% of the applications were denied in whole or part, according to DAS. Exercising their right under the arbitration ruling, about 700 state employees have filed appeals, according to the Office of Policy and Management.
In contrast, opposition to government employees working remotely has mounted around the nation, particularly this year as the pandemic was officially declared over. President Biden, a Democrat who describes himself as the most pro-union president in history, in April told federal agencies to “substantially increase” working in the office.
In February, the Republican-controlled United States House of Representatives passed legislation requiring federal agencies to reinstate pre-pandemic telework policies and place restrictions on future expansions. The legislation is not expected to receive a vote in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate.
Governors in Pennsylvania and Virginia – a Democrat and a Republican respectively – have curtailed the amount of teleworking or eliminated it. In Pennsylvania, Republican legislators were calling for staff to return to the office for nearly two years and questioned the impact of teleworking on employee productivity.
But in Connecticut, little attention has been paid to the issue of remote government workers by either Republicans or the news media.
Gary L. Rose, a professor of politics at Sacred Heart University and a long-time student of Connecticut politics, said how the state is managing taxpayer dollars – in this case its spending on employees – is an issue the Republicans typically would embrace.
“My first reaction was of course Republicans would be concerned about that arrangement,” he said. “But Republican lawmakers who aren’t fans of big government are being quiescent.”
Why? Teleworking has become the new normal, Rose said, particularly in Republican districts whose voters are more likely to be the type of knowledge workers who are allowed to telework.
“Many people in Republican districts are working remotely,” Rose said. “It could have political repercussions.”
Rose said Republicans think cutting taxes is more potent with voters. “People care more about taxes,” he said. “That’s another reason Republicans don’t feel it’s advantageous to criticize teleworking.”
A veteran lobbyist who previously worked for Republican elected officials said on condition that he not be identified that Republicans don’t think the public cares about the issue. “They made the determination that no one cares,” he said. The source added that criticizing remote work when the legislature remains partially remote itself would appear hypocritical. “How can they criticize the state?” the source said. “Everybody is in on the joke.”
Rick Melita, the former director of the State Employees International Union, said the lack of criticism reflects a new attitude. “The pandemic changed everyone’s view of work,” he said.
Between 2019 and 2021, the trend of Americans working from home exploded nationwide and continues to do so. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, remote workers tripled from 5.7% to 17.9%.
The news media itself is in large measure not working from an office. The Hartford Courant closed its offices several years ago, and statewide many reporters and editors work remotely, a trend that started before the pandemic and accelerated afterward.
“Everybody likes telework,” Melita said when asked about the lack of scrutiny from the news media.
House Republican leader Vincent Candelora said the fact that the legislature operated entirely remotely up until last year and continues some remote operations is not the reason for the lack of Republican opposition.
“We are a part-time legislature, so I don’t hold ourselves to the same standard,” said Candelora, who added that House Republican staff have worked from the office five days a week since January 2022.
Rose agreed with Candelora that the partially remote nature of the legislature is not a reason for Republicans to stay quiet. “It is a part-time legislature, and they work remotely in part,” Rose said.
While criticism has been muted, there have been a few dissenters.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, whose city is being hit by the lack of state employees spending with local businesses, said he has been vocal in opposing teleworking.
“We need to strike a right balance,” Bronin said. “The pendulum has swung too far. I see office buildings that are empty.”
Republican Party Chairman Ben Proto said, “It’s time for them to come back to work,” adding that the lack of widespread Republican opposition reflects the fact that telework is now established in law through the arbitration ruling and that “there are more important issues.”
Proto said Republicans nevertheless “regularly make the argument that Democrats are too cozy with labor unions. It’s a blue state.
“Now we have to wait for the next SEBAC contract” in 2027, he said, referring to the union coalition that negotiates benefits and other issues for state employees. “Ned Lamont needs to stand up now and say we need our state employees to come back.”
Candelora said the Republican Party’s minority status means they can’t change the telework policy.
“There is a high degree of remoteness on the legislative side,” he said. “I can’t control that. We are in the minority and if Democrats won’t require people to come back, there’s not much we can do … The governor has not pushed hard to get people back and now we are stuck with the arbitration award.
“Now that the pandemic is officially over, it begs the question of is everyone coming back to work,” he added. “I think they need to.” He said constituents are frustrated that their phone calls to state agencies don’t get answered or returned. “It’s all via email now,” he said.
Adam Joseph, Governor Lamont’s communications director, said, “The current work from home system is the result of an arbitrator’s ruling. Any changes will be subject to future collective bargaining.”
Calls to the Connecticut Democratic Party were not returned.
One of the potential selling points for government workers teleworking is that the state could reduce spending on offices. Some state offices are owned by the state and others are rented.
On Friday, the state bond commission will consider funding to study and plan office consolidations. OPM said DAS began a process to find a consultant to “assist in the development of a space utilization plan to maximize office space within 450 Columbus Boulevard (where DAS has its offices) and evaluate state buildings and possibly consolidate the state workforce space in the realm of telework.” OPM added, “DAS has $1 million for building consolidations on the State Bond Commission agenda . . . This is the initial seed money for the building consolidation project.”