The COVID-19 pandemic made working from home first a necessity, and then a reality of life for many folks.

The St. Louis County Board acknowledged that fact in Virginia on Tuesday, when it advanced a permanent mobile-work policy that’s careful to put control in the hands of department heads and supervisors.

“This is not a pandemic policy; this is a new way of delivering services to complement the work we do,” said Jim Gottschald, director of human resources and administration.

The policy requires county employees to make a written request for mobile work subject to management approval. The county’s proposal says mobile work is not an entitlement or contractual benefit subject to grievance. The proposal also makes clear it’s not a fit for everybody.

One key passage states: “While mobile working, an employee’s work duties cannot require frequent direct face-to-face contact with others in a county facility or regular access to special equipment only available at a county work location.”

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During an early peak of the pandemic in April 2020, more than half (903) of the county’s roughly 1,800 employees were working remotely, while 707 were either in the field or remaining in an office.

It’s unclear what those figures are now. Since the County Board ended its COVID-19 emergency declaration in July, the county has sought to return to more traditional service delivery. A piloted work-from-home program currently in place would be replaced by the new policy.

“This cannot result in any diminishing of service we provide to citizens in traditional ways they have sought out services from St. Louis County,” Gottschald said.

The policy was unanimously approved at committee of the whole, with commissioners praising months of work, which included an employee survey, and several rounds of interviews with interested parties.

Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, said the effort to reach the policy was “yeoman’s work.”

Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, weighed in: “I’ve talked to a number of employees and they’re willing to see what happens.”

The policy has not been proffered without tension.

Social worker Dennis Frazier, president of AFSCME Local 66, addressed commissioners, saying his phone was “blowing up” with county workers concerned about COVID-19, and how the workplace was being handled as the pandemic lingers.

“What I’m asking for is clear communication,” Frazier said. “People do not want to work full time from home. They just want to be safe.”

During last week’s committee-of-the-whole meeting in Duluth, Commissioner Keith Nelson raised the topic of a letter written to commissioners, and Public Health and Human Services Director Linnea Mirsch, by a county employee critical of management's decision-making surrounding mobile work.

A copy of the letter mailed to the News Tribune revealed numerous frustrations formed around an employee’s lack of control of their mobile work situation.

“I do not read anonymous letters. I never have,” Nelson said.

Keith Nelson
Keith Nelson

Nelson asked county administration to investigate the letter, which was produced on county letterhead and mailed using the county’s postage meter. The county has not said if it is following through with that request.

As part of the new policy, the county will provide a laptop or tablet to be used at alternate locations.

But home workstations won’t be provided with technical support from the county, and the policy also puts costs onto employees: “Mobile workers are responsible for obtaining and paying for necessary internet services at their alternate work location,” the policy says.

Commissioner Ashley Grimm, representing western Duluth, said “excitement” was the prevailing response she’d heard from employees, but that she wanted union stewards to feel heard and invested.

“The last thing I will be watching for is to hear back from union stewards,” she said. “Not that we have to have complete consensus.”

The County Board will make its final vote on the mobile work policy at its meeting Sept. 28 in Alborn.