Months after proposed return-to-office requirements for Austin employees were put on hold, elected officials are looking to cement long-term remote working policies tied to civic climate goals.

What’s happening

Austin’s mobility and climate plans are now in line for updates that would clearly encourage flexible work options for government staff and the reduction of local vehicle commutes.

The proposed changes were formally requested in a resolution from council member Vanessa Fuentes, who said changing work practices link well with the relevant city initiatives.

“Working from home has become an invaluable resource for combatting climate change, reducing traffic and increasing Austinites’ quality of life," Fuentes said in a statement. "By folding telework recommendations into our climate plans, we’re taking another step towards meeting our goals, while also recognizing the positive impact telework has on our city employees, working families and commuters.”

Fuentes's resolution, approved Nov. 9, advances several recommendations first made by members of the planning commission this fall. They said they forwarded the proposals to ensure Austin is a regional leader on “workplace, mobility and environmental policies," and to clarify how those play into established civic plans.

“As one of the largest employers in Central Texas, the city of Austin will not successfully achieve the goals in its comprehensive plan, nor prompt the private sector and other public entities to meet these goals, if the city itself fails to model these policies,” commissioners wrote in a memo to council.

The latest steps follow earlier calls to expand city remote work policies that, as with many other governments and businesses, became standard in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The changes were supported by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1624, Austin’s chapter of the national municipal employee union representing many on the city's payroll.

Political Director Krissy O'Brien said the organization's focus on the issue built up this year given many workers' interest in reaching a fair city teleworking policy that matches with Austin's future plans.

“Our members work in these offices. They work on mobility, they work on resiliency and climate action, and it matters to them that we’re reaching these goals. They spend time and energy on planning these out, and I think that covers policies like telework," O'Brien told Community Impact.

The details

Edits to the Austin Climate Equity Plan and the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan as laid out by the planning commission centered on:
  • Actively promoting remote work and flexible commuting options to cut down on local vehicle trips
  • Establishing policies that contribute to the city's target of having 15% of Austin residents working from home by 2039
  • Working with city employees to limit parking demand at city facilities, following similar telework planning by Travis County
  • Encouraging community partners and stakeholders, including city contractors and private businesses in the area, to consider their own remote working policies
“There’s a lot of these goals that we have as a community and values that we have as a community, and we can forward those as a city because of the way the city engages in a lot of different facets of our lives and our city’s life, and definitely the employees as well," Planning Commissioner Awais Azhar said Oct. 24.

The background

The future of teleworking options for Austin’s thousands of employees became a debated issue earlier this year after interim City Manager Jesús Garza announced plans that would’ve brought most city employees back into the office for at least three days a week beginning this fall. At the time, Garza said that changes were being made to improve consistency and efficiency among city staff, as well as resident relations.

The proposed update faced opposition from employees and AFSCME Local 1624. The city eventually pushed the implementation of Garza’s return-to-work mandate back to January 2024.

What’s next

Formal amendments to the city’s strategic documents will be presented to relevant boards and commissions in the coming months. The changes would then end up before council for final consideration early next year.

For now, city and AFSCME representatives are hashing out a new teleworking policy that could go into effect in January. O'Brien said discussions are continuing ahead of that deadline and that the organization hopes to secure more options for workers than the previously-proposed mandate for three in-person work days weekly.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all policy. There are different job titles, different classifications that allow for a remote work schedule that goes beyond two days a week," she said.

City management did not respond to a question about the outlook for Garza’s previously delayed in-person work requirement as of press time.

In their October memo to council, planning commissioners asked that any city policy changes that’d counteract the climate and mobility goals highlighted in their recommendations should be “paused or reconsidered.”