Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler renews call for office workers to return downtown

By Kyra Buckley (OPB)
PORTLAND, Ore. Dec. 1, 2023 8:57 p.m.

Since the pandemic sent many office workers to their homes, they’ve been slow to return to downtown Portland office buildings.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is once again calling on downtown businesses to bring workers back to the office at least part time, starting in the new year.

Wheeler renewed his request in an open letter to central city employers on Thursday, saying it would match the requirement of city staff.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

“I again call on all other levels of government,” Wheeler wrote, “all private sector employers, academic institutions, not-for-profits and community-based organizations to follow the City’s lead of at least 20 hours of in-person work per week by January 1st, 2024, for remote/hybrid staff.”

A confluence of events has driven workers from downtown offices to their homes. Chief among them was the pandemic, causing work-from-home mandates that had employers scrambling to accommodate remote work. Nationwide the number of remote workers tripled, from nearly 6% in 2019 to almost 18% in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since then workers have adapted and are slowly returning to the office.

Streets sit empty during morning rush hour in downtown Portland, Ore., during coronavirus pandemic, March 20, 2020.

FILE: In this photo taken by drone, downtown streets sit empty during morning rush hour in Portland, Ore., at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, March 20, 2020.

Stephani Gordon / OPB

Meanwhile, downtown is especially seeing the impacts of Portland’s affordable housing crisis, coupled with inadequate resources to meet mental health and addiction needs.

“What people are saying to me is that drugs have altered the experience of downtown,” said Andrew Hoan, president of the Portland Metro Chamber, “to the point where employers and customers are saying, ‘How can we accept this state? How can we accept this many overdoses, this many people that are dying on our streets in front of us?’”

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Hoan and Wheeler are both a part of Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek’s Portland Central City Task Force, which has been meeting since August. The task force is expected to release recommendations later this month for issues like addressing open drug use and revitalizing the downtown corridor.

In the meantime, Wheeler said in his open letter the city has added six to eight Portland Police Bureau officers tasked with performing foot patrols in the downtown area.

Still, it could be a tough ask for Oregonians to return to the office. State employment economist Gail Krumenauer said, in keeping with the national trend, about 7% of Oregon workers were remote in 2019. In 2022, the figure sat at 19%.

“We’re coming down from that pandemic-era peak, but still have a higher share of people typically working from home than we did before the pandemic recession,” Krumenauer said. “Overall, Oregon has tended to rank highly among states for the share of workers who are typically working from home — we ranked fifth in 2019 and sixth in 2022.”

Krumenauer said employers are already having a tough time finding workers in the current tight labor market. She said offering the flexibility to work from home can give employers a competitive edge when recruiting.

FILE: Store windows in downtown Portland, Ore., remain boarded up Oct. 6, 2023.

FILE: Store windows in downtown Portland, Ore., remain boarded up Oct. 6, 2023.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Hoan at the Metro Chamber said the mayor was “spot on” with his call for workers to come back 20 hours a week or more.

“The morning-to-night lifeblood of our center city is dependent on the office worker,” Hoan said. “That’s the secret sauce. We had a very vibrant market before, and it’s been jeopardized. And it is struggling to come back.”

But Hoan said there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy for return to office policies.

“Everyone’s sort of winging it at this point and just making sure the culture works and that they can stay competitive,” he said. “Each organization, each business, each institution has to choose its own adventure.”

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories

Checking in on the health of some of Oregon’s downtowns

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told OPB last month that if city's downtown fails, it could have consequences for the rest of the state. We'll hear from two other downtowns in Oregon on some of the challenges and victories they're facing.