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Bill would end controversial practice of paying state employees to travel back to Oregon

Oregon state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore.
Bradley W. Parks
Oregon state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore.

State employees who took advantage of COVID-era remote-work provisions by moving away from Oregon will no longer get a free trip back to the Beaver State when traveling for work, under a bill on the move this year.

Senate Bill 853 passed out of the Senate Labor and Business Committee unanimously on Tuesday morning. It now heads to the Senate floor, where its chances aren’t in question: Every one of the state’s 30 senators has signed on as a sponsor.

That’s a rare occurrence in the Capitol — even for widely popular bills. SB 853′s broad support is a hint at the outrage many Oregonians feel toward a COVID-era state policy that allowed state workers to telecommute from anywhere, and be reimbursed for travel expenses on the occasions they do have to come back to Oregon on work-related business.

Willamette Week first reported on the policy last August, highlighting how some highly paid employees of the Oregon Lottery had moved to Florida and Texas, and had thousands of dollars’ worth of travel costs back to Oregon repaid.

That coverage inspired Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, to float a bill making clear that “the state may not pay the costs of travel to or from Oregon for an employee in state service who telecommutes.”

“An uproar started after this article was published because of the blatant unfairness of this policy,” Knopp testified in committee on Feb. 9. “I heard from many public employees that this was just wrong.”

Knopp convinced all of his colleagues to sign on, but the bill had a potentially potent critic in the state’s largest public-employee union, Service Employees International Union Local 503.

The union’s executive director, Melissa Unger, told lawmakers earlier this month that SEIU was concerned that an initial draft of Knopp’s bill could unduly impact labor contracts. She also said employees who’d moved out of state were only following rules set by their employers and that she wasn’t convinced the travel expenses were a big enough problem to worry about.

“They have made a decision based on something they were told was their workplace policy,” Unger said. “They changed their life, they were told this was the way that their work would work, and now I’m concerned, and we are concerned, that the Legislature would pull back.”

Based partly on the union’s concerns, Knopp introduced an amended version of the bill on Tuesday. It makes clear that existing labor agreements wouldn’t be impacted. And it creates an exemption to the travel cost prohibition for out-of-state workers who live within 60 miles of the Oregon border.

The changes convinced SEIU to take a neutral stance on the bill. Other large labor unions have not weighed in.

The state Department of Administrative Services says 432 of the state’s 41,543 employees live outside of state lines. According to reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive, 255 of those employees live in bordering states. The department has not offered stats on how many reside within Knopp’s 60-mile buffer. The state’s payroll includes workers residing in 41 states and the District of Columbia, The Oregonian has reported.

It’s not clear exactly how much money Oregon agencies have spent ferrying their remote workers back to the state.

Knopp has not limited his advocacy for ending the state travel policy to legislation. Last week, he sent Gov. Tina Kotek a letterasking her to reverse the practice of paying for trips back to the state.

“I believe the current policy is neither fair nor equitable to hybrid and in-person state employees who don’t get compensated for their commutes,” Knopp wrote. “It is also deeply unfair to hardworking taxpayers.”

It was not immediately clear Tuesday morning whether Kotek had responded to the letter or altered any state policies.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.