Starting this January, all Baltimore City government workers will return to working in person a minimum of three days a week, a mandate that will affect more than 2,000 employees, Mayor Brandon Scott said.

In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, Scott said the return-to-office plan has been developed with senior cabinet members, agency heads and other representatives from a “future of work” group tasked with reviewing the city’s policy since April 2022. The group — informed with the help of a study by the Ernst & Young management consulting firm — arrived at the decision to improve government service delivery, revive downtown Baltimore’s commercial office district and maintain some flexibility for employees.

“Over the course of the pandemic, our staff has remained flexible, and we’re thankful for the adaptation. I am really incredibly proud of the city’s ability to pivot during the COVID pandemic along with the rest of the world,” Scott said, adding that his office estimates more than 2,000 employees currently work remotely more than two days a week. “There’s no denying it will take time ... to reimagine what returning to work means for them.”

Representatives from the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the City Union of Baltimore did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

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Cities across the country are grappling with the return-to-work question, which carries with it the potential of mass resignations in a labor market that remains tight and competitive in the wake of the public health crisis. While U.S. unemployment rates have fallen to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce analysis found there are 1.4 million fewer workers participating in the American labor force currently than in February 2020.

The lobbying group identified numerous reasons for this shrinking workforce, including a wave of early retirements, an increase in savings due to higher unemployment benefits and government stimulus gifts, a loss of child care providers, and a reduction in net international migration to the U.S.

Baltimore officials have said publicly that more than 20% of city jobs are vacant.

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Scott and City Administrator Faith Leach said mayors in large metropolitan cities across the country are seeing increased job vacancies, and that Baltimore’s situation isn’t unique. In general, they said, cities have been struggling to recruit and retain police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services workers, as well as other front line job candidates, including solid waste workers and commercial vehicle operators.

Scott and Leach acknowledged that while some employees may oppose the return-to-office plan, they are responsible for delivering effective and efficient services and being available to constituents. And in addition to weekly remote work options, city workers can also inquire about extended telework opportunities that agency heads will review on a case-by-case basis, Leach said.

“We will still be providing flexibility for our employees,” Leach said, adding that the city will review options to allow workers to reserve workspaces — known as “hoteling” — and improving building conditions for workers over the next 90 days. The changes could also allow the city to shed office space.

“We also look forward to having more employees back in city buildings and in the downtown footprint and working alongside others,” Leach said.

Scott said local workers outside of city government — restaurateurs, parking garage owners and small business leaders, for example — also influenced the decision. “They need to feed their families as well,” he said.

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The mayor and city administrator declined to share details from the Ernst & Young study, saying they were shielded from public records laws under what’s known as deliberative process privilege. Another study completed by the management consulting firm in 2021, however, found that more than half of survey respondents from around the globe said they would consider leaving their jobs if not afforded more flexibility in where and when they work.

In a memo from the mayor’s office sent to employees Friday, Leach said the city’s Department of Human Resources will finalize an updated telework policy for review and approval by the city’s spending board. She emphasized that returning to offices will not mean reverting to the pre-pandemic “status quo of all staff on site 100% of the time.”

This article will be updated.

Baltimore Banner reporter Adam Willis contributed to this article.

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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