AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Holly Montoya is one of many who commutes from out of town to work in Austin daily. For her, the cost of rent in Austin and surrounding areas isn’t affordable, so she drives about an hour-and-a-half every day from Temple.
Montoya’s job shifted to remote during the pandemic and she just returned to the office in April. Between surging gas prices and traffic from more people returning to the office, she misses that flexibility.
“Even if it was like a hybrid thing — like if it was like three days in the office two days at home — that would save me a ton of money,” she said.
Those are some of the reasons why members of the Texas Senate Business & Commerce Committee discussed both sides of teleworking for state employees in a meeting on Wednesday.
While Montoya isn’t a state employee, researchers who testified say even having more state employees work remotely could help reduce traffic.
“With the growth that’s expected in Texas with a population of nearing 50 million in the coming decades, some of these problems will be amplified,” said David Schrank — a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Schrank said a 2015 analysis found about 19% of employees in central Austin were state employees. He noted on holidays when state employees were off work, there was a “noticeable difference” in traffic on those days. The conclusion — state employees were a factor in Austin’s traffic congestion.
Several heads of Texas agencies told lawmakers about what types of employees were able to work from home during the pandemic and whether they were fully back in the office or a mix of hybrid options.
The Texas Workforce Commission was unable to provide data to KXAN about how many state employees are still working entirely or partially remotely. However, TWC executive director Ed Serna provided figures to lawmakers about its agency.
Serna said about 68% of TWC employees are working remotely or teleworking at least two days a week, and it’s had more benefits than reducing commute times for staff.
“We believed that it would be a great recruiting and retention tool for TWC, especially remote work,” he said. “Austin is becoming much more difficult for us to compete with the private sector with regard to salary and benefits.”
He said after offering more permanent telework flexibility, the TWC started seeing more applicants for jobs that are typically hard for the agency to fill.
“When we talk to those individuals, what we’re actually hearing from them is it’s not because of our pay but it’s because of the way we’ve used telework and the fact that we allow telework as much as we do,” Serna said.
Whether or not legislation will come from this interim committee meeting is unclear. Some agency leaders noted the reality that working from home is impossible for a large part of the Texas workforce.
Cecile Erwin Young, the executive commissioner for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, noted it’s impossible for her agency to have a uniform teleworking policy for her employees.
“Telework is not appropriate for staff who provide direct care to clients, maintain facilities or provide services that cannot be performed remotely,” she said.
While it’s not possible for everyone, lawmakers expressed an openness to allowing it for the types of jobs that make the most sense in the long term.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense — if we know how expensive the real estate in and around downtown Austin is — for us to have state agencies that don’t necessarily have to be in downtown Austin if they can be just as effective in Round Rock or Kyle or Buda or San Antonio, New Braunfels,” said Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio.