County, Burlington are exceptions – with more latitude still allowed for working from home
Most folks have dispensed with the facemasks they wore at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and obsessive handwashing is now, once again, the province of Lady Macbeth.
But for some white-collar employees, working from home has remained the one vestige of Covid-19 that has proven particularly hard to give up.
Among those for whom remote working has become the new normal are a significant number of local government workers – particularly those in the employ of Alamance County and the city of Burlington.
Lately, however, Alamance County’s administrators have begun to roll back this privilege for county staff members who had been especially loath to return to the office.
According to Alamance County’s manager Heidi York, a recent staff-level directive has partially reversed the county’s pandemic-era policy that had allowed some county employees to spend three days or more of the business week working from home.
“There was a policy put in place before I came here,” York told The Alamance News, “and we’re revamping that policy to say that a maximum of two days can be worked remotely.”
Meanwhile, the top brass in Burlington have been less inclined to roll back the comforts of telecommuting for their more homebound subordinates.
According to city officials, Burlington currently follows the same remote working guidelines that it adopted in the spring of 2021 when the coronavirus pandemic was still driving many of the city’s personnel policies. Under these rules, staff members whose job duties allow it can apply for permission to spend “all or part of the workweek” at home or another satellite location. This policy also requires an employee to have satisfactory performance and mandates regular evaluations to make sure their time in the home office isn’t being squandered.
“The city of Burlington considers remote work to be a viable, flexible work option when both the employee and the job are suited to such an arrangement,” the policy goes on to declare. “Remote work is not an entitlement or a city-wide benefit, and it in no way changes the terms and conditions of employment with the city of Burlington.”
The lure of working from home has never really caught on in most of the county’s other cities and towns.
In Gibsonville, for instance, the town’s administrator Ben Baxley concedes that he and his colleagues were expected to show up in person, even at the height of the pandemic, unless they or their family members were exposed to infection.
The same sort of hardiness also held sway in the town of Haw River, where town manager Sean Tencer can only recall a brief period in March of 2020 when a skeleton staff ran the town’s municipal building.
“We did keep the lobby shut down for a while, but it’s been business as usual for the last two-and-a-half years,” Tencer added earlier this week. “We never implemented a work-from-home policy, and all town employees have been working under normal conditions since the pandemic started…No one works remotely for the town.”
In Elon, town manager Rich Roedner admits that all of the town’s administrators were working from home in April of 2020 – save for a small, rotating “command staff” in certain, more hands-on departments.
“After April, we re-opened all offices and all employees came back to work, with restrictions,” he added.
Roedner noted that, as long as the fear of exposure continued, staff members were ordered to mask up in common areas, minimize face-to-face interactions with colleagues, and see members of the public only when they had appointments. Yet, the only staff members who could work from home during this period were those who actually tested positive for Covid-19.
“This was helpful for those employees who were not ill [but had tested positive for Covid],” Roedner recalled. “For those that couldn’t work from home after testing positive, we utilized the federal Covid sick leave program where we were reimbursed for the cost of sick time.”
Roeder added that 100 percent of the staff is currently back in the office.
The city of Graham, according to its manager Megan Garner, adopted a “hybrid” model at the height of the pandemic, which married aspects of remote working with the traditional office setting.
“This involved separating staff into rotating groups to reduce contact and exposure to positive cases,” she elaborated this week. “Once parameters and measures were in place, staff returned to typical work schedules with limited interaction within the offices and frequent sanitizing of workspaces.”
Garner added that all of Graham’s employees have since returned to the office – as have their counterparts in Mebane, according to its city manager Chris Rollins.
Rollins observed that Covid-era remote working ended for most of Mebane’s municipal workforce in July of 2020. He added that, during later phases of the pandemic, the privilege of working from home was reserved for people with Covid-19 infection, other “ongoing” health problems, and issues with school or childcare.
Rollins noted that, since the end of the pandemic, some city staff members will occasionally work at a distance thanks to the staff’s high degree familiarity with teleconferencing platforms like Zoom and Teams.
“Prior to Covid, we did not use ZOOM/TEAMS,” he added. “We [now] use virtual meetings practically every day. So, working from home during sick [leave], vacations, and other times…is much easier than ta