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The Complexities of Remote Work for State Employees 

Oregon should act fast to set policies that are fair and equitable and that don't offer special favors for those who decide not to live here.

We've all heard the stats here in our own community: Bend is one of the most popular places for remote workers to come and live and reap the benefits of the lifestyle while also, often, earning the higher salaries offered in places like the Bay Area of San Francisco. While that's meant an attractive lifestyle for those who are able to do it, Bend's "Zoomtown" status has also had its drawbacks—namely, the rise in home values and the pricing-out of locals who continue to earn local salaries.

Now, though, some recent reporting has revealed another drawback of remote work, and makes us wonder where the true cost of remote work is heading. Last week, Willamette Week reported about the number of employees working for the State of Oregon who are now living in other parts of the country while retaining their Oregon jobs and Oregon salaries, all while not being required to pay Oregon income taxes. That's somewhat concerning—but there's more. Not only does the state allow workers to live anywhere, but they're also getting the state to foot the bill when they travel back to Oregon for work.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ADOBE STOCK
  • Courtesy of Adobe Stock

The Chief Financial Officer for the Oregon Lottery now lives in Texas, while the Chief Human Resources Officer for the Oregon Lottery now lives in Florida. The costs of travel back to Oregon, since their moves in 2021, have cost the state around $2,000 each thus far, according to Willamette Week. Around 500 state employees in total are now taking advantage of a 2021 state policy that allows them to work remotely.

While the obvious drawbacks of a remote worker culture include heightened home values and density in "attractive" areas and decline in less-attractive areas, it does make sense, in a work culture where workers are hard to find, for the state to open up its worker pool through remote work. State agencies have said this policy allows them to remain competitive in the workforce.

Still, it is unfair for these workers who opt not to live in a state where they work to be compensated for this choice, and for taxpayers in the state (where those remote workers are now avoiding the income taxes that keep the government running) to foot the bill. While some employers do offer things like bus passes to employees, it is uncommon to get your employer to pay for your local commute, let alone your commute across the country all because you decide to live in a red state.

This needs to change.

When state lawmaker, Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend), heard about this, he vowed to introduce legislation that would bar the state from compensating these employees for their travel. This is the right thing to do, and the least of the moves the state should make to correct this. Some are also calling for a policy that requires employees who work for the state to actually live in the state.

We are in the midst of a societal shift in which people are more able than ever to live where they want to live while also having more flexibility in their work sites. Some of those changes are already resulting in effects such as income inequality and lack of housing for lower-income people, as we are seeing here in Central Oregon. This "self-sorting" is bound to have political and social effects we have not even been able to conceive of yet.

In the case of employee travel, however, Oregon should act fast to set policies that are fair and equitable and that don't offer special favors for those who decide not to live here.

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