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Workers at the Joint Office of Homeless Services Don’t Like the Idea of Returning to Their Desks

Jun 27, 2023

The pandemic is largely over and supervisors want their employees back in the office. No surprise: Workers aren’t happy.

This conflict is playing out across the nation at workspaces of all types, big and small, public and private. The result of this tug of war has major implications for the future of downtown Portland, as leaders have emphasized at a task force convened by Gov. Tina Kotek.

WW has obtained emails and chat messages detailing tensions over teleworking at one downtown employer: the beleaguered Joint Office of Homeless Services, which was recently the subject of a scathing county audit that accused the agency of being siloed, slow and, according to service providers, “a confusing and chaotic organization.”

JOHS is run by Multnomah County, but partly funded by the city of Portland. And its offices, located on Southwest Oak Street, are just steps from the daytime camping and nighttime drug dealing that city officials are trying to curb.

But few county employees seem to work there: “15-35 percent” of the offices’ 100 employees are “in on any given day,” says Multnomah County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti. “Fifty percent,” she added, “are in the office or in the field in person once a week.”

This shouldn’t be surprising, she explains. “JOHS is largely an administrative function, not a direct service provider,” Sullivan-Springhetti wrote in an email to WW. “Folks are administering contracts, collecting and crunching data.”

In other words, the Joint Office’s 100 employees largely oversee contracts with the social service providers who have direct contact with unhoused people.

That work has recently come under scrutiny. In an audit released Aug. 23, County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk described an office where standards for contractors were malleable, service providers were paid late, and each division of the office “worked in a silo” where they rarely consulted one another. “Fewer than half of homeless service providers surveyed felt the Joint Office was doing a good job communicating policies and system goals,” the audit says.

Whether a mandated return to the office would improve matters is a subject of intense debate among workers and management, records show.

Unlike the county, the city of Portland required its employees to be at their desks 20 hours a week beginning last spring. That hybrid schedule “improves daily services to Portlanders,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement to WW. “I implore the Joint Office of Homeless Services and Multnomah County to explore their future of work options, as we have at the city, to find a solution.”

In the short term, JOHS plans to save money by moving its offices to a county-owned building after its lease is up in December. Plus, says its director, Dan Field, the new location by the downtown homeless shelter inside a former Greyhound station is “closer to the people that we’re serving.”

Field says he’s still evaluating whether to adjust the office’s telework policies in the future. In the meantime: “I’m trying to put out some fires and do a longer-term assessment,” he says.

Dan Field (Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County)

County leaders, at least behind closed doors, have considered adjusting their policies to better mirror the city’s. WW has obtained emails through a public records request detailing plans by the county’s director of Facilities & Property Management early this year to require employees to be in the office two to four days a week.

Field forwarded those plans to a JOHS human resources manager earlier this month. “Sharing this with you confidentially,” he wrote. “There continues to be a lot of discussion at the county leadership level about aligning around a shared hybrid work model.”

Field and the county’s chief human resources officer, Travis Brown, then discussed how to address concerns from public employee unions. “The union will likely never agree to our approach here—and that’s OK,” Brown wrote.

There was also discussion within JOHS, less rosy in tone. The topic of teleworking came up during Dan Field’s first meeting with his team May 10. The meeting was not recorded, and Fields doesn’t remember exactly what he said, but he tells WW he broached the issue with staff to “take their temperature.”

The temperature was hot. Employees made their displeasure known in chat messages also obtained by WW through a records request.

Here’s What They Had To Say

Telework is working.

“We work together great already :),” said a program specialist. “We love telework!” said another employee.

The commute would eat up too much time.

“The number of meetings would be unsustainable if we had to drive,” the employee added. “And parking downtown is crazy.”

It’s unaffordable.

“There are also people who live far away because living close in is expensive,” wrote a third. “Yup, the housing crisis affects us too…,” another responded.

It’s dangerous.

“COVID still exists and we have folks who are immunocompromised,” said another employee.

There are bigger things to worry about.

“Way more important priorities to work with discussing homelessness and what does it matter if it’s in person or virtual,” the specialist added.

It’ll make recruitment more difficult.

“I am frankly disappointed and offended that we are even using this space and one of our first meetings together to discuss taking away telework; we would lose many valuable members of our team if that happens,” a sixth employee wrote. “I think we need to take into consideration the privileges those making big decisions have, unlike employees, such as myself and many of my colleagues do not have.”