Washington health agencies try to find balance between telework, in-office business practices


Shane Ersland


The COVID-19 pandemic altered workforce habits for many organizations, making telework a permanent option for a large variety of workers. Washington health agencies discussed how telework has affected their business practices during a State Government and Elections Committee meeting on Tuesday.


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Michaela Doelman, assistant director of human resources at the Office of Financial Management, discussed the state agency workforce response to COVID-19. She said a healthy turnover rate is any number below 10 percent, according to most workforce experts. 

“Some turnover is always good,” Doelman said. “Most years, we hover just around 10 percent. But fiscal year 2022 was the first year that turnover was above that, at 15.7 percent.”

Doelman said state agency data for 2023 was not available yet, but said it was trending to be above 10 percent again, which is a trend other states are experiencing as well. She also discussed worker preference trends, and said people who are applying for jobs want some possibility of telework.

About 30 percent of the state’s workforce is teleworking 100 percent of the time, Doelman said, while 50 percent telework at least three days a week.

Sen. Perry Dozier (R-Waitsburg) said lawmakers were working virtually when he was elected in 2021 during the pandemic. 

“It makes it awfully nice if you can work at home. But it’s also a deterrent to stay focused on your job. This last session, I got to build relationships with all the senators I didn’t get to before. I’m not against telework at all, but I think it’s also a very important component that we don’t try to get too much of that.”


Doelman said most state agencies are trying to figure out what type of telework/in-office hybrid work model works best for them.

Lou McDermott, deputy director of the Washington State Health Care Authority (HCA), said the agency employs almost 1,700 full-time employees, and 98 percent of them are eligible to work remotely. Those who work in positions like security guards and public greeters are not eligible. 

Between 125 and 200 HCA workers are in an office most days, on average, McDermott said. That number is growing, however, as 248 were in-office in the beginning of June. 

“Employees report a high level of satisfaction with remote work,” McDermott said. “However, we’ve also had employees say they’re isolated, lonely, and not connecting with their teams. So we’ve been trying to have divisions determine what is best for them, on when they bring people in, and try to make sure our facility can accommodate that.”

The HCA has seven different leases for offices, and the leases expire at different times through 2029, McDermott said. Some leases may not be renewed.

“Because of the way leases are done, and spread out over time, we have had time to think about this. So as time goes by, we’re trying to be thoughtful about what we’re doing. 

They all expire at different times, and we’re going to start letting those go. So our space will get smaller and smaller. At some point, we will not have the ability to bring all staff back [in-office]. So we have to be diligent about how we schedule who’s coming in, [and on] what days.”


Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) Secretary Jilma Meneses said the department employs approximately 18,000 workers as the state’s largest employer. 

“And we’re growing very quickly,” Meneses said. “The reason why is we’re opening several clinical and treatment facilities. We expect our footprint to grow considerably given the demands upon us for behavioral health treatment and other kinds of treatment. A large number of our employees are 24/7 frontline workers. We also have a lot of office workers. And we have to have that balance between clinical, office, and remote.”

DSHS Leased Facilities and Maintenance Operations Chief Kelly Lerner said the department has 89 locations, with 86 of them leased. Over 4,600 DSHS employees (representing 46 percent of telework-eligible employees) participate in some level of telework, she said.

“Telework is working for many DSHS employees,” Lerner said. “But for any DSHS telework or facilities decision, we ask how this will affect client services. And what is the optimal balance of telework and in-office work? And the answer is going to be different for every team. DSHS is still in an exploratory phase. And it’s going to take years to figure out what’s best for client services and for our employees.”