Last week, in response to the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all state employees who can telework to do so.
“Effective immediately all state employees who are approved to telework must again begin a period of mandatory telework except for essential direct public facing services and other essential personnel,” Hogan said at a press conference on Nov. 10.
Earlier that day, state Budget Secretary David Brinkley, whose office oversees personnel matters, sent a memo to all cabinet secretaries and agency heads.
“Physical distancing remains one of the strongest tools against this virus and teleworking provides our employees with that protection while allowing them to continue to deliver vital services to our citizens,” he wrote.
However, the Maryland branch of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, the state’s largest employee union, says the governor’s announcement did not change the number of employees teleworking at state agencies or lead to changes that would allow them to more easily telework.
Monica Brown, who works in the Motor Vehicle Administration’s insurance compliance division, said no one in her office is teleworking. She estimated there are about 30 to 40 people in her office at a time.
Brown, who said she has worked at the MVA’s headquarters in Glen Burnie for 19 years, processes payments and refunds related to insurance fines. She does all of her work over the phone or by email, never interacting face-to-face with customers.
She said she asked management about doing her job from home, but her supervisors turned her down, pointing to one specific part of her job that must be done on a specific computer in the office.
As part of her job, she has to waive fines of more than $500, usually a couple of times each day. But that has to be done in the office.
“We have raised concerns and asked questions as to why we can't do it [remotely] and can we come up with a plan to where so it works, but we get shot down every time and are told it's not possible for us to telework — we have to be there,” Brown said.
In an email, MVA spokeswoman Whitney Nichels said just under a fifth of the agency’s 1,700 employees work entirely from home. About 120 split time between home and MVA locations.
Nichels said security concerns prevent the MVA from conducting many transactions remotely.
“MDOT MVA will continue to evaluate teleworking policies on an ongoing basis and make additional changes when possible to limit foot traffic and enhance safety for everyone who walks through our doors,” Nichels wrote.
At the local social services agencies across the state — which fall under the leadership of the state Department of Human Services — many employees who were teleworking a few months ago are not anymore.
“There are some people who've been asked to come back into the office, and they're telling me that they're doing the same work that they were doing from home,” said Cherrish Vick, AFSCME Maryland’s secretary-treasurer and treasurer of the local that represents workers at social services agencies.
Vick said the reason for the change isn’t always clear.
“I've heard different things like, ‘Oh, they want a presence at the office,’” Vick said. “Some people may be asked to come back in if a supervisor feels that their work is not up to standard, so sometimes it's punitive.”
The wifi hotspots social services agencies gave some workers for at-home internet don’t work consistently, she said. Some workers have iPads instead of laptops, which makes it harder for them to do their jobs. Then when their performance suffers, they are told they need to return to the office.
“This has been happening all throughout the pandemic — people have been told to come back in. People have been working in and out of the office since the spring,” Vick said.
Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, which oversees local social services agencies, said in an email that some staff had challenges working from home.
“In those cases, we have asked those staff to return to the office to get additional training and support with the ultimate goal of having them return to teleworking as soon as possible,” she wrote.
Additionally, throughout the pandemic DHS has continued to provide programs and services in-person to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, Morris said. For staff who cannot telework, “DHS facilities continue to ensure that proper screening, distancing, and cleaning protocols remain in place.”
A spokesman for the Department of Budget and Management, which oversees state personnel matters, did not answer questions, referring instead to the letter Brinkley sent agency heads last week.