Work-from-Home Now Available for County Employees

For three months during the height of the pandemic, all County of Door employees worked remotely. Following that, they worked half time in the office, half from home for about six months.

“When we did that, we saw very good results,” said Ken Pabich, Door County administrator.

Many Wisconsin counties allowed their public-sector employees to continue some form of remote work even after employees returned to their workplaces.

“Once we got that taste, it was hard to go back,” said Kelly Hendee, Door County human-resources director.

Data that Hendee compiled shows the majority of Wisconsin counties allow work-from-home options, and four are in the process of implementing remote-work policies. Only 12 counties did not retain a work-from-home option, and Door County was one of those.

That changed June 28 when the Door County Board of Supervisors approved a policy that will allow employees to work remotely for a maximum of three days a week.

The policy is considered to be a trial only. The full board will reevaluate how it’s working in six months.

“It’s considered our putting our foot in the water, versus just allowing it full time,” Pabich said. 

The county polled departments for potential use. Only about 12 employees indicated they’d be interested in the three remote days. The majority of those who believed they’d work from home said they’d do so one day a week. The highest number of anticipated remote workers was in the county’s largest department, Health and Human Services. Of its 93 employees, seven may use the three-day option, and 80 employees the one-day option.

The new policy is not available to department heads, and new employees must fulfill their six-month introductory period before it’s available to them. Any employee who wished to work remotely would need approval from her or his department head and human resources before starting.

For the past year, the county has been looking at ways to help employees achieve work-life balance while still meeting the needs of the public. The remote-work policy follows the flex-schedule practice the county implemented last year, which allows employees to request alternative work schedules. In May, the county board adopted a pilot program that modified its hours of operation and will be revisited in October. Where it’s feasible, county employees work nine-hour days Monday-Thursday, plus a four-hour day on Friday.

The remote-work policy failed 4-3 in the Administrative Committee, where it was first heard. Supervisor Dave Lienau used his right, as county board chair, to bring it back for discussion by the full county board.

Lienau said he initially opposed the idea, but changed his position based on the number of employees who indicated they’d use at least one remote day. But not all the supervisors got behind the measure. Supervisor Todd Thayse said he didn’t think county government, with its public role, was a good place for work-from-home options. 

“Call me old fashioned, but I really believe workplace interaction is very important to any place of employment,” he said.

But the majority of others – the remote policy passed 16-4, with one supervisor absent – said they saw the policy as key for hiring and retaining employees. That’s also what former Public Health officer/manager Sue Powers, who retired in June, said during the public-comment period when she urged the board to pass the policy.

“The county is in a staffing crisis, especially in the Health and Human Services Department,” Powers said. “Employees can efficiently and safely work remotely.”

Supervisor Dan Austad also viewed the policy as a natural workplace progression.

“I wondered what the county board would have thought 50 years ago about giving a week’s vacation,” he said. “Pay them to go fishing? They can go fishing on the weekend.”

One of the policy requirements the board eliminated, with a 12-7 vote, was the need for remote employees to log their daily work and give a weekly report to their supervisor.

“I’m completely supportive of treating them as professionals who can manage their own time, and if they can’t, that’s a management issue, not a policy issue,” said Supervisor Alexis Heim Peter. “More specifically, I have grave concerns about a daily and weekly record. It’s 15-20 minutes of your day. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but that adds up.”

A handful of supervisors also tried to eliminate the policy’s six-month trial period.

“Once you give someone something they enjoy, and take it away, it usually doesn’t end well for the business supplying that perk,” said Supervisor Nissa Norton.

“Also, what’s the metric for determining if it worked or didn’t?” asked Supervisor Morgan Rusnak.

That measure to eliminate the trial period failed, 15-5, with one supervisor absent. 

Hendee said it would be up to department heads to develop their own metrics of accountability. The policy was expected to be implemented shortly after the Fourth of July holiday.