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King County is moving hundreds of employees to permanent work-from-home status

Many people working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown wonder when they’ll be able sit next to their coworkers again.

For about 800 King County employees, the answer is never.

The county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks has informed employees that telework is the permanent normal.

“Rather than continue to see if things will change enough to go back to the way we were, we have decided to radically shift how we work starting now,” department director Christie True said in an all-staff email Friday.

True said the plan is to occupy just one floor of the King Street Center in Pioneer Square, instead of nearly half the eight-story building.

The one floor is slated to host a “collaboration hub” with a small number of cubicles and docking stations for employees who used to work in the building to work or gather occasionally as pandemic conditions allow.

The department, which cleans up garbage and wastewater and maintains parks, has another 1,000 front-line employees whose work cannot be done remotely.

Department leaders plan to add other collaboration hubs to its water treatment plants and garbage-transfer stations and to support outdoor meetings at its picnic shelters and parks.

True said the move was a management decision done without consulting employees or their unions.

Some county employees said they’re concerned about being forced to shoulder what were once the county’s costs of providing and running a workplace.

“We have been notified of the change and asserted our right to bargain over any changes to working conditions,” said Maria Williams with Teamsters Local 117, which represents some department employees.

True said she expects big cost and energy savings, especially given physical distancing requirements that would prevent perhaps half the building’s cubicles from being occupied any time soon.

“Downtown offices use lots of energy for heating and cooling,” she said.

True said employees will save money on commuting, work clothes and food.

Fewer commuters also mean fewer customers for neighboring businesses.

Neal Goldberg had to shut down his physical therapy practice in Pioneer Square three months ago as employers fled downtown. He said he’s stuck paying rent on his space for another seven months.

“This has been a challenging time financially,” he said.

“I'm trying to reopen, but it's not gonna happen,” Goldberg said. “There's no one working down there anymore, and that was my bread and butter. It was the people who work down in the Pioneer Square area.”

Many employers have embraced telecommuting now that they have been forced to, though few have gone whole hog like the county natural resources department.

The city of Seattle has directed all employees who can work from home to keep doing so until early September.

Microsoft and Amazon have told employees they can keep working from home through October.

NPR reports that Facebook expects half its 48,000 employees to be working remotely in the next five to 10 years.

If more employers adopt large-scale telecommuting, it could take a big chunk out of the region’s climate-wrecking carbon emissions and shake up commercial real estate, land use and transportation in Seattle and beyond.

True said the Department of Natural Resources and Parks is the first King County agency to make the permanent shift, though others might follow.

“Nobody has announced it yet, but many of them have asked to see the details of our proposal and are seriously considering it,” she said.

Correction 11:30 a.m., 6/24/20: A previous version misstated the amount of space the Department of Natural Resources and Parks occupies in King Street Center.