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New Mexico House panel kills telework bill in first hearing

CWA members rallied outside the Roundhouse in support of telework in January. Democrats on a House panel joined Republicans on Thursday to table House Bill 300, likely sinking the legislation’s chances this session. (Austin Fisher / Source NM)
State agency bosses line up to oppose work from home

A bill that would have given New Mexico state government workers the right to work from home will not reach a vote in either chamber of the state legislature.

The House Labor, Veterans’ and Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday voted 7-4 to table House Bill 300. Tabled bills rarely return in the same session.

House Bill 300 would have put a telework policy into the state law governing working conditions for state workers by mandating that if a state worker’s duties do not require their physical presence, they would be eligible for telework.

At the time of the hearing, there were 12 lawmakers who had tested positive for COVID, and were “telelegislating,” said Rep. Joy Garratt (D-Albuquerque), a co-sponsor.

“It’s a larger issue that I think we’re all dealing with,” Garratt said.

High-level managers, either cabinet secretaries or human resources officials, from 19 of the 27 New Mexico executive branch agencies spoke in opposition to the bill, noted Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-Albuquerque), a co-sponsor of the bill.

Co-sponsor Rep. Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos) pointed out not all department heads came to the hearing on Tuesday. She said some department heads have privately told her that telework is a very helpful and important policy that helped them retain workers, and that they were disappointed when the governor revoked it at the end of 2022.

“It was disappointing to see a parade of state agency heads speaking in opposition, not because their staff were not serving New Mexicans while teleworking, but because they believed it was appropriate to defer to the governor,” said Megan Green, vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 7076. “It was also telling that the only opposition to the bill came from agency heads, seemingly at the direction of the governor.”

Agency heads say bill would step on management’s toes

Some of the agency heads argued that enacting the bill would take away the management power of the executive branch.

Public Safety Secretary Jason Bowie said he could not support the bill because it would create a right for state workers to telework.

“You’re, in a sense, creating a guarantee for employees, that they have this administrative right where, at the end of the day, we, as leadership in New Mexico, should be able to determine what is essentially necessary to properly run state government,” Bowie said. “That right should strictly remain with the executive in this particular case.”

State Personnel Office Director Theresa Padilla said the issue of telework is “better served as a policy, not as part of the State Personnel Board Act.”

Padilla said keeping telework a matter of policy and not state law allows for her agency “to collaborate with the union partnerships,” but a law and the rules that would be created to follow it would not.

Chandler countered that by saying there are already many things in state law telling the executive branch what they have to execute, and requiring them to make rules, like for an employee’s probationary period, for example.

Children Youth and Families Department Secretary Barbara Vigil said it’s important for the executive branch to be able to negotiate telework rather than be required to provide it under law.

“I really urge you to be very mindful of allowing the executive, as the primary policy head of the state of New Mexico, to take this matter, to consider it, all the ramifications of it, and to move forward with what she believes is in the best interests of the state of New Mexico,” Vigil said.

Recruitment and retention

Twenty percent of all positions in state government are empty, the State Personnel Office told legislative analysts. Some agencies are approaching 30% vacancy rates, Chandler said.

Chandler said if the state government wants to compete with other sectors of government and private companies, “they are going to have to adjust their attitude in terms of telework.”

“It is something that is gonna happen, and this policy will help, I think, create a work environment that workers are now looking for,” Chandler said.

Green said the executive managers who opposed the bill “acknowledged the issues with recruitment and retention and talked about how hard it is to fill their vacancies, but don’t seem to believe that better working conditions will attract better employees.”

Weaponizing ‘equity’ against the bill

Some agency bosses drew a distinction between “essential” or “front line” workers and “telework-eligible workers.” They used that distinction to argue House Bill 300 would not be equitable for state workers whose job duties prevent them from teleworking and who make smaller wages.

Transportation Secretary Ricky Serna, who himself negotiated the telework policy in 2021 when he was acting director of the State Personnel Office, said Tuesday that state maintenance workers, mechanics, and construction workers make less on average than “what a telework-eligible worker will probably make.”

“We really gotta be mindful of the positions that aren’t gonna benefit,” Serna said.

None of the executive branch bosses mentioned equity as it relates to disabled or immunocompromised state workers.

All three of the bill’s sponsors agreed that the lowest-paid state workers need raises.

Contrary to the opponents’ use of “equity,” Green said real equity is allowing the best working conditions possible for every employee.

“What the agency heads are asking for is that all state employees be treated the same, regardless of job duties,” she said. “This is not equity.”