Rantz: Most Seattle city councilmembers refuse to return to the office

Apr 25, 2022, 5:58 PM | Updated: Apr 26, 2022, 10:12 am

Most Seattle city council members refuse to return to the office, sticking with COVID remote-work policies introduced two years ago. While they continue to stay home, other city workers were back in the office last month. The council is not offering a timeline on when they’ll return.

Socialist councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales and Progressive councilmembers Debora Juarez, Lisa Herbold, Dan Strauss, Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, and Teresa Mosqueda will not return to the office to work, according to the council spokesperson.” They earn between $65.82 and $69.26 an hour, though they’re not engaged in the same workload when they’re at home. Their staff is working on hybrid schedules. The only council members to work from the office are moderate Democrats Alex Pedersen and Sara Nelson.

In mid-March, roughly 35% of city staff worked remotely. After a return to work was announced, most of the holdouts returned to the office on at least a hybrid basis. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office reports only about 13% of the remaining staff are working from home (around 1650 employees).

So where is the council? None of the remote councilmembers responded to my request for comment, made through the communications department, to explain why they’re staying home. On Tuesday, Lewis explained to independent journalist Jonathan Choe that he is working from the office and wants to return to in-person council meetings.

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Working from home cuts off access

The council members who are choosing to stay home are skirting their duties.

Their decision dramatically cuts off constituents and media access to their offices. Not everyone has the time to hound council members or staff with emails that don’t get answered. For example, Strauss is notoriously bad at responding to constituent complaints submitted via email. It’s easy to excuse the behavior when you claim you’re inundated with emails. It’s harder to dismiss a complaint from someone who shows up to discuss their concerns.

There’s likely also a connection between the lack of council-focused news stories in the media and not being able to go to City Hall to start asking questions and finding evasive council members.

Sometimes the best way to get answers, or track down stories, is to visit council members and their staff in the office.

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Council members are sending the wrong message to small business

If the council wanted to push back at the notion that downtown is unsafe and small businesses are worthy of our support, they’d get back to the office. Not wanting to commute to city hall is no excuse to stay remote.

Seattle workers are lagging behind other cities in returning to the office. That many workers are in the tech sector, which allows for remote work wherever you find an internet connection, explains the low number of workers returning. That Amazon loathes most council members is likely making it easier for them to justify remote work, too.

But employees are also unlikely eager to return because downtown isn’t safe. If a worker uses King County Metro to get to and from the office in or near downtown, they will understandably feel uncomfortable. Drug use is rampant, aggressive homelessness is consistent, and the lack of police staffing is consequential. Is Morales too scared to return to the office? That sends a message.

And the sooner downtown becomes crowded with residents who aren’t smoking fentanyl by a bus stop on Third Avenue, the better it is for struggling businesses. On paper, the economy isn’t struggling in Seattle, buoyed by the tech sector that didn’t take the same COVID hit as other industries. But hundreds of small businesses closed for good and without a steady flow of workers, the remaining retail and restaurants will continue to struggle.

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Rantz: Most Seattle city councilmembers refuse to return to the office