Minnesota lawmaker calls out state employees working from afar

- The state of Minnesota, like many businesses today, offers certain employees the opportunity to telecommute. But, critics of the policy are upset with a portion of the program, which allows a select-few employees to telecommute from out of state.

 "We've got to be nimble as a state workforce to attract and retain the best possible people. We think telework is one of those tools if used properly," said Commissioner of Minnesota’s Management and Budget, Myron Frans.

Others see problems with the program.

 "I am troubled with the accountability," said Republican State Senator Mark Koran. "To me this an abuse of a telecommuter policy."

Consider, for example, the Department of Natural Resources, where Dan Petrik is a land use specialist.

He is responsible for managing statewide shore land programs that protect water quality and habitat.

If Petrik ever had to drive to a meeting at DNR headquarters in St. Paul it would take about 29 hours to get there. His home office is 1998 miles away, in Northern California.

Dave Milles, held basically the same position for many years, before retiring from the DNR.

"I was like no, this can't be true," after hearing about the work arrangement.

He believes the job cannot be done from so far away.

"This is a job about the DNR, our waters are here, citizens are here, the resource is here. I don't understand it," said Milles.

When Milles found out about it, he was so upset he complained to Koran, who is his local Senator.

Koran is a telecommuter himself working sales in a private sector job.

 "I was shocked when this particular case came up. My inquisitive mind said I wonder how many other people were in this position," Koran told the Fox 9 Investigators.

WHERE ARE STATE EMPLOYEES LOCATED?

Senator Koran asked for an accounting of state employees who've been green-lighted to telecommute from locations outside of Minnesota.

In response, he got a list of job titles and states where the person is located but no names.

"I found it very difficult to get information even as a State Senator," he said.

Using Minnesota's open records law, the Fox 9 Investigators asked 13 state agencies to provide who on their payrolls telecommutes from other states.

The state provided 62 names and their job titles: everything from pharmacist, to water quality monitor to information tech specialist.

However, the 13 agencies would not disclose where the employees are located out of state.

 "We are very protective of security and privacy of our employees. We want to give out all the information for what they do, how they work and the job they perform, but need to recognize they need to have a secure home address," said commissioner Frans.

Fox 9 didn't ask for their home addresses, just the states they're working from.

 "My sense is at the end of the day they may be hiding something or worried about something," said David Schultz a Professor of Law and Politics at Hamline University. “"Nothing that you read in the law specifically bars the state from saying that for people who are working remotely, that we can't disclose, at least the state.”

Fox 9 found MNSCU, the state college and university system, to be more transparent with its telecommuter list. It gave us the employee’s name, position, state where they're located and salaries, of 71 faculty, who work remotely.

The other 13 agencies just gave us telework numbers by state.

There's one in Arizona, eight in California, four in Colorado, three in Florida plus numerous others.

They are all people who collect a paycheck from the state of Minnesota but live outside its borders.

 "But their job is really being on the screen all the time, so they can do that same work at home, that they can do at work," said Frans.

Frans said these agreements help the state retain and recruit the best people.

 "We have a tough time in managing for performance and productivity when the employees are sitting with their managers," said Koran.

Koran worries about accountability, and that some employees might take advantage of being so far away from the watchful eyes of their bosses.

When asked if there had been any abuses. Frans replied, “I’m not aware of any.”

Milles said that he doesn’t like the arrangements because he feels some people are getting special treatment.

No one from the DNR, would go on camera to talk about the telework agreement with Petrik.

Remember, he now lives in California but still manages shore land programs here.

In a statement the DNR wrote: "This employee has unique skills and works from an office, not in the field. That and his continued relationship with our constituents was a compelling reason to use a teleworking agreement in this case."

 "When it’s a public resource serving a public need in Minnesota I think we should have those resources based in Minnesota," said Koran.

Petrik does come back to Minnesota on his own dime when necessary, for meetings.

The DNR would not tell us how often that is, claiming the information is classified private.

Petrik also declined an interview as Fox 9 attended one of the public meetings he was conducting in Isanti County, MN.

Off camera, he did say he spends about a fourth to a third of his work time in Minnesota.

The agencies with the most out of state telecommuters are the Department of Revenue with 22, many of them are auditors who visit businesses which owe Minnesota taxes but are based in other states.

The Department of Human Services has 16.

The Pollution Control Agency has 11.

MN IT, which manages computer systems, has five.

"We believe in order for us to provide services to Minnesotans we need to sometimes make these agreements," said Frans.

Koran says some of the out of state telework agreements, like the ones for the Department of Revenue, make sense but he questions the others.

PLANS TO CLAMP DOWN ON PROGRAM

"I think we have a long ways to go before people have great trust that we can augment or implement these types of policies," said Koran.

Koran is planning to introduce legislation that would put some limits on which state workers can telecommute.  If the jobs in Minnesota, he wants the employee to live here too.

Employees who live in other states only pay Minnesota state taxes on wages earned when they are physically working in Minnesota.

TELEWORKING AGREEMENTS BY STATE:

Arizona 1

California 8

Colorado 4

Florida 3

Georgia 2

Iowa 1

Illinois 1

Indiana 2

Michigan 1

Missouri 1

New Jersey 1

New York 1

North Dakota 4

Ohio 3

Oklahoma 1

Texas 3

Washington 1

Wisconsin 22

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