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Remote work is on the rise for Oklahoma state employees

Oklahoma Department of Human Services Director Deb Shropshire spoke at a press conference in March 2023.
Whitney Bryen
Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Department of Human Services Director Deb Shropshire spoke at a press conference in March 2023.

More state employees working remotely has opened up office space in some state agency buildings, allowing agencies to share buildings or sublease.

The increased use of work-from-home and hybrid workplaces among state employees was a catalyst in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ recent move to a new headquarters in Oklahoma City.

Executive staff at the Corrections Department moved before Christmas into the second floor of a building on North Lincoln Boulevard in Oklahoma City occupied by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. They previously were at a complex of buildings on Martin Luther King Avenue.

Separately, the Pardon and Parole Board signed a sublease last week to occupy 1,500 square feet at the OHCA building, Executive Director Tom Bates said Wednesday. It plans to move in February.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed most workplaces, including those in state government. With higher rates of telework and hybrid workplaces, the Health Care Authority occupied just 55% of its headquarters space, said Emily Long, agency spokeswoman. The authority leases the building from Lincoln Plaza/261 LLC, a holding of local property developer Gardner Tanenbaum.

“We were at 100%, but when COVID hit, we shifted to more of a work-from-home model that changed what our space needs were,” Long said. “We’re working on welcoming some other entities to provide opportunities this year so we can reach 100% capacity and try to be more fiscally responsible with the building. We’ll also be able to share resources like janitorial, too.”

The Corrections Department signed a sublease with the Oklahoma Health Care Authority for almost 35,000 square feet on Nov. 17 according to a lease agreement obtained under the Open Records Act. It will pay $41,500 per month for the space.

Steven Harpe, executive director of the Corrections Department, told lawmakers in budget hearings last week several buildings at MLK had fire damage and mold issues. He said the agency plans to refurbish the buildings but needed new office space in the meantime. The Corrections Department will continue to house its Corrections Industries, inspector general and training academy at the MLK complex.

Other agencies, too, have consolidated space as many of their employees move to a telework model. Among them is the Department of Human Services, which employs more than 6,250 people. Almost 90% of the agency’s workforce either works remotely (one day or less onsite each week) or in a hybrid model (two to four days a week onsite), according to budget documents for fiscal year 2024 provided to lawmakers.

Deborah Shropshire, DHS executive director, said the agency reduced its office footprint by 690,000 square feet in the last few years. Part of that was from pandemic-related budget cuts and a desire to modernize where DHS offers services.

“In doing that, we’ve brought online new locations that are more efficient and smaller and have the needs for our modern way of working,” Shropshire told senators in a Jan. 10 budget hearing. “We’ve embedded staff in various organizations such as schools and other various access points and community partners instead of everyone having to come to a DHS building to encounter our staff.”

The Corrections HQ move was not without criticism. Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, chairman of the House’s criminal justice and corrections committee, said the Corrections Department needed Legislative approval to move its headquarters. The agency disputed that requirement, saying it was not required to receive legislative approval to enter into a lease with OHCA or move into its office building. Humphrey has been a frequent critic of the Corrections Department, calling this year for an independent investigation of the agency.

Harpe said the agency informed the House Speaker of the headquarters move. He also briefed the Board of Corrections at its Nov. 29 meeting. The agency sent out a request for proposal for new office space in February 2023, according to documents obtained under the Open Records Act.

The Corrections Department spent more than $588,000 to furnish the new office space. About half of that went to new Dell computers and monitors. Other furnishings such as office chairs came from Oklahoma Corrections Industries.

Humphey’s questioning echoed lawmakers’ concerns in 2020 when Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Oklahoma State Department of Health announced the relocation of the state’s Public Health Lab to Stillwater in the first year of the pandemic. Some lawmakers and many health department employees said they were caught off guard by the announcement, which was coupled with now-defunct plans for an Oklahoma Pandemic Center of Innovation and Excellence.

Bates said the Pardon and Parole Board has been holding board meetings at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority Building since last summer. He said the agency signed a lease at $2,437 per month, about $100 more per month than its previous lease at the Connors Building near the Capitol.

“Our staff primarily teleworks or works offsite at DOC facilities,” Bates said. “The primary reason we wanted to move is so we could finally have our offices where our meetings take place.”

The move to telework can add costs to agency budgets, and especially to that of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which provides information technology services to most state agencies. The agency made a $2.9 million supplemental request to pay for additional secure, virtual private network software.

Jerry Moore, OMES’ deputy director, said office consolidation allowed the state to get rid of outdated or unnecessary internet connections and phone circuits, which saved money.

“One of the things that happened during COVID is obviously our workforce changed significantly,” Moore told House members in a budget hearing on Tuesday. “There was a shift in the density of office buildings. We started looking at the actual circuit types, how big the pipes were. We had savings as we closed buildings or turned off circuits or if we negotiated and moved them to a different circuit type that had a cost savings.”

Moore said offering telework options also helps the state recruit new employees, especially in the IT sector.

This article first appeared on Oklahoma Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017 and covers state agencies and public health.
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