The results are in: City of Portland employees want to stay out of the office.
At least for most of the week. A survey conducted in June of nearly 3,500 municipal government employees — about half of the city’s total workforce —found most had no interest in returning to the office full time. Three-fifths of those working from home part-time said they’d quit if the city made them come in more than twice per week, according to a report distributed to city employees Monday.
The reluctance mirrors what’s playing out in offices across the county as workers are asked to return to their desks after adapting to the comforts of a work-from-home lifestyle during the pandemic. Employees said they enjoyed the freedom and flexibility. They liked not spending hours each week commuting. Not paying for childcare five days a week was much easier on their wallets — as was avoiding the cost of downtown parking.
“For the first time ever, my family is financially stable instead of living paycheck to paycheck because we don’t have all the expenses related to being away from home and our kids every day (parking, gas/transit fares, childcare, etc.),” one anonymous respondent wrote. “Requiring in-person work when it is not demonstrably necessary to perform a job function can no longer be ethically instituted”
Recently, elected leaders and business groups have urged both public and private employees to come back. Their presence has been portrayed as critical to the revitalization of downtown, which suffered when the 9-5 workers vanished. The Portland Business Alliance — the region’s biggest business chamber — and the city teamed up on an initiative in May called “Downtown Workers Are Here for Portland” — an effort to get downtown workers once again spending money in the area. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has repeatedly said the return of these workers is critical to the health of the city’s core.
Such statements seem to have struck a nerve with the city’s employees, who have little interest in being used as “a vehicle for economic stimulus,” per the report.
“PLEASE: don’t let downtown businesses be a controlling factor under some vague assumption about how much money City staff spend downtown, and what kind of impact that will have,” another respondent wrote. “I supervise three employees and to the extent they spend ANY money downtown on workdays (apart from parking), the dollar amount is MINISCULE compared to the psychological toll they will experience if told to report in-person more than one day per week.”
Of course, some city employees had no choice but to keep coming into work throughout the pandemic. Many of these employees said in the survey that the city had mistreated them over the past two years, failing to recognize they were shouldering a heavy financial burden that remote employees were not. Many of these employees said there should be some sort of additional compensation for them, such as a stipend for childcare and transportation.
“They are in effect spending a significant amount of time on their commute that WFH employees are not,” an employee commented. “It is by definition inequitable.”
City employees are not alone in not wanting to return to the office. The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last month that vacancy rates in the central business district were hovering around 22% percent this spring, compared with 13% just before the pandemic. Some firms had reportedly given up on having workers come back and were putting their buildings up for sale.
Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal has a different idea for these spaces: turn them into affordable housing.
Jayapal said she’s started early conversations with developers on potentially converting empty office space downtown into much-need apartment units. On Monday, the commissioner toured a vacant downtown office building that she estimated could provide between 65 to 90 units.
In a city with too many vacant offices and too few affordable homes, Jayapal says the concept could be a partial solution to both. The Portland region, she said, is in a particularly good spot to move forward as officials could potentially use money from the Supportive Housing Services measure to pay for the rent in the office spaces. Voters passed that measure in 2020 to provide money for services that help people at risk of homelessness remain housed.
Right now, Jayapal said she’s only been talking to private developers. She said Multnomah County’s buildings are full as many county services are provided in person.
“Not every office is going to lend itself to conversion to housing,” she said. “But the reality is we’re at a point where even 200 or 300 or 400 additional units makes an incredible difference.”
As for Portland office space, it remains unclear whether vacant units will eventually fill back up. City officials say they’re still deciding the next steps.
“I look forward to reviewing the findings and working with my colleagues to develop a recommendation for the next phase of the city’s workplace plan,” Wheeler said in a statement.