County personnel committee punts on working remotely
Committee gives 60 days to draft a policy, leaves approvals to departments
After two hours of discussion, members of the county’s personnel committee are putting it on department heads to determine if employees should be able to work from home, at least for now.
The issue landed in the personnel committee following a recommendation from the county’s executive and emergency committees to have work at home requests go through the personnel committee in the future. Previously the requests had gone through the emergency committee which was formed to deal with COVID-19 related issues impacting county operations and functions.
The move to have the requests go through the personnel committee was done in order to have a more uniform approach county-wide and avoid issues with labor laws.
Prior to COVID-19, the county had not allowed working remotely, but opened the door to it as a way to reduce the number of staff in the building and to maintain continuity of services in the case employees were ill or needed to be quarantined.
Up until now, the remote working option has been used by staff at the human services department, which currently has two people working from home fulltime and a number of others who work remotely certain days of the week accessing county networks either through a virtual private network (VPN) or a remote desktop to computers in the information technology (IT) department.
According to IT director Melissa Seavers, employees working from home open the door to security risks for the county due to lack of going through the same sort of firewall protections that are in the computers in county offices. She said a particular target is malicious software that records keystrokes and can allow for the potential theft of Social Security or banking information. She also expressed concern about custodianship of public records and if remote workers are following the rules for maintaining these records. She noted that for the remote desktops, which are necessary for some of the high usage state software used by state systems require dedicated computers in the IT department. “If 20 people wanted to use them, we would need 20 computers set up in the server room to accommodate remote sessions for everyone,” she said.
Seavers said that moving toward more county employees working remotely would require the county to spend additional money to beef up the IT infrastructure to ensure that people were protected.
She noted that they have enough trouble dealing with people within the county buildings clicking on a malicious spoof email link let alone the concerns about people working from home doing things they shouldn’t.
Committee chairman Chuck Zenner suggested an alternative to accommodate people wanting to practice social distancing in the workplace to utilize otherwise vacant spaces in county buildings as workstations. This way they would be within the county’s security systems, but would be separated.
“How do private companies get around this?” asked Marie Koerner, county human resources direct.
“Money,” responded committee member Tim Hansen.
For some committee members the security issues and the potential for opening the county up to legal issues was a major concern. However, others including Lester Lewis said the starting point should be establishing a formal policy, determining the actual costs involved and then consider requests.
Lewis noted that having employees work remotely could end up being a savings for building costs while ensuring employees are as safe as possible. County board member Ray Soper noted private businesses are able to offset their costs such as through not having to rent space for employees. “I don’t see any offsetting expenses,” he said.
Committee member Scott Mildbrand also noted that government is a service industry and that they needed to have people in the offices to serve the needs of the public.
Hansen agreed noting that it would be impossible for a majority of county employees to do their job remotely.
Committee members approved having Koerner draft a policy for them to review and approve at an upcoming committee. They also approved a motion to have the IT department prepare a cost analysis for what it would take to allow working from home while maintaining security.
As county emergency planning director Colleen Handrick noted the analysis of possible county spaces to allow for creation of additional workspaces was already underway as part of the emergency plans for continuity of government.
While the development of policies and plans for the future will address future concerns, Handrick and other members of the emergency committee questioned how the remote working requests would be handled right now. “The biggest issue was consistency countywide,” Handrick said, noting that there are departments in the county that would close their doors to the public due to concerns. “In reality we all serve the residents of Taylor County,” she said.
Mildbrand attempted, unsuccessfully, to cap the number of employees working from home to the two accessing state systems remotely and two using the existing VPNs, citing security concerns.
IT committee chairman Mike Bub spoke against this proposal, noting that there have not been significant security issues in the past four months that the people have been working. He said the goal should be setting a permanent solution through a countywide policy. “We don’t have a permanent solution you can pass today,” he said.
Mildbrand also noted that any decision to allow people to work from home should be based on needs rather than on what employees want.
Hansen said rather than the personnel committee micromanaging departments, it should be up to department heads to make these decisions about workplaces. “We pay our department heads pretty good money to make those decisions,” he said.
District attorney Kristi Tlusty, who had people in her office ask about working remotely, noted that things are changing on a day-by-day basis. “Next week may be completely different,” she said.
Hansen said the county should put their faith in the department heads and have those department heads work with their oversight committees. Zenner cautioned that there would not be uniformity across the county.
“Why would that be a problem?” Hansen asked, noting that different departments have different needs.
“We need to have a policy period,” said committee member Rollie Thums. He said the county should take 60 days to prepare a policy and then have it reviewed and approved by the personnel committee.
“The world is not going to come crashing down around us in 60 days,” he said. “Let them do their job as they see fit right now.” A motion by Thums to allow department heads to make the call on working remotely with review and adoption of a policy in 60 days was approved with Mildbrand opposed.
“I think we are not taking security seriously,” Mildbrand said. In other business, committee members:
_ Approved extending the limited term employee (LTE) emergency preparedness assistant for the emergency management and health departments through the end of the year. The position had been scheduled to expire at the end of July, but with the recent uptick in cases in the county the workload is continuing. It is being funded through a grant through the federal CARES Act.
_ Approved creating a grant-funded LTE position to assist with the transition to a new treatment court coordinator in the district attorney’s office. The position is funded by a state grant that covers the treatment court program. District attorney Kristi Tlusty explained the turnover that was being seen with the treatment court and the need for the position. It will continue through the end of 2020.
_ Accepted the report from Carlson Dettmann Consulting for the airport working supervisor position. The county hires the consultant to maintain the wage scale and classify employees by job duties. With a restructuring of the airport and highway departments, the job was reclassified as a grade “I” position. This is three levels lower than the grade “L” position it was previously due to the inclusion of additional labor versus management duties. This puts the position in the same wage bracket as mechanics and social workers. The airport committee will set the actual wage with county personnel rules allowing them to go up to the control point at step 6 of the pay grid, which for grade “I” is $24.56 per hour. Higher than that would require additional county action.