As Santa Clara County emerges from COVID-19, workers are returning to their jobs, which means drive-time traffic jams are returning, too.
And that means air pollution is also returning to normal levels.
Steep declines in air pollution were noticed early on in the pandemic, with the Environmental Protection Agency reporting in March 2020 that Bay Area air pollution had decreased by 38% over March 2019 levels. The EPA largely attributed the decline to fewer vehicle trips.
Fast forward to today and we see that big businesses like Apple and Google are making return-to-work plans.
Santa Clara County is also contemplating what a return-to-work plan might look like.
As that plan unfolds, Supervisor Susan Ellenberg has said she’d like the county to adopt a policy that would allow county employees to telecommute 25% of the time.
That’s a good idea because we know that telecommuting reduces air pollution, which in turn improves people’s health and well-being.
Locally, the Santa Clara County Employee Services Agency reports that 3.8% of county workers were telecommuting prior to the pandemic, with that number increasing to 33.7% when the county implemented its shelter-in-place telecommuting program in March 2020.
That breaks down to 779 telecommuters pre-COVID and 6,970 post-COVID.
Of course, not all county employees can telecommute: Valley Medical Center doctors and nurses and patrol deputies are good examples of why telecommuting isn’t a “one size fits all” proposition.
But what if the employees who telecommuted during the height of the pandemic were allowed to continue telecommuting post-pandemic? The ESA report says the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking 7,302 passenger vehicles off the roads annually.
Allowing those employees to telecommute just one or two days a week would be the same as taking approximately 5,417 passenger vehicles off the road each year, the ESA report says.
Either way, developing a permanent telecommuting policy will go a long way toward supporting Santa Clara County’s pledge to “cut the commute” and achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.
With the framework for a telecommuting program already in place, this is a good time for county leaders to make significant progress toward its carbon-reducing goals.
That framework requires employees to show they can work independently, while still delivering good service. It also requires that a work plan be developed that includes having employees keep a log of the “saved” commutes and distances not travelled while telecommuting.
That said, there are challenges to telecommuting that were outlined in a September 2020 report to the Board of Supervisors.
For example, the report notes that remote workers may not be able to quickly access supplies, equipment and files needed to do their jobs properly; social isolation is described as “one of the biggest struggles” employees face; collaboration and brainstorming may be more difficult; and lower morale may occur among employees who either cannot telecommute or are denied the opportunity.
The report goes on to say that expanding the county’s telecommute program post-COVID will require a formalized plan that outlines policies, guidelines, employee training, work assessments and virtual team-building activities.
Many tools, such as Zoom, virtual private networks and time tracking are already in place.
With approximately 22,000 employees, Santa Clara County is one of Silicon Valley’s largest employers and is positioned to demonstrate true leadership by making a telecommuting program permanently available to employees.
Our future—and our children’s future—depend on it.
Rob Rennie is the vice mayor of Los Gatos and a District 1 candidate for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.