Teleworking program could help rural communities diversify their economies

Teleworking program could help rural communities diversify their economies

(Scott G Winterton, KSL File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Jobs in rural Utah is one thing desperately needed, according to Price City Mayor Mike Kourianos. One way to help rural communities diversify their economies is through telecommuting.

Kourianos is also co-chair of the Utah Coal Country Strike Team, a group formed by Kem C. Gardner Institute as part of a nationwide competition designed to relieve poverty in rural areas. The competition — Alliance for the American Dream — was sponsored and funded by Schmidt Futures.

The team won $300K funding from the competition for their plan to help Carbon and Emery counties raise the median household income of 10,000 households by 10% over several years, according to Kourianos. The proposal was one of 150 submitted across the country in August.

Since then, Kourianos said the project has received $1.4 million total in matched funding, including $500K from appropriated Utah State Legislature funds.

Price, the largest city in Carbon County, relies in large part on coal-fired plants in the area as a major source of jobs. But as Kourianos pointed out, the way of the world is moving away from coal-powered energy and looking toward clean renewable energy instead.

He predicted the plants in the area will continue to shut down over the next 15-20 years, leaving people jobless and with limited skills. Kourianos, who was born and raised in Price, has worked at PacifiCorps’ Huntington coal-fired plant for 40 years and said it’s not him he’s worried about — it’s the young people he sees in the industry.

“It just breaks my heart,” he said, referring to young people starting careers in the dying industry. He said he wants to be able to bring new industries to his city to prepare for the plants’ inevitable closure — what he calls a “freight train” coming fast at the city.

When the plants shut down, Kourianos said it will “devastate” the community and have a ripple effect throughout the area, noting for every one employee working in the plant, there’s probably seven or eight working outside the plant in related jobs that would vanish if the plant shut down.

Convincing Utah tech companies to create teleworking jobs in the counties is just one part of the plan to diversify the area’s economy. Which is why Kourianos said he’s excited about the state’s new permanent teleworking program — if both tech and government jobs come to Price, it would boost the economy, he said.

Kourianos also said bringing people to Carbon and Emery counties could help alleviate the Wasatch Front’s air quality problem and noted the cost of living is lower as well.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox announced Monday the implementation of a statewide teleworking program, following what state officials said was a successful pilot program. In addition to several other benefits Cox listed, a focus of the program is bringing jobs to rural Utah.

During the pilot program, which launched in September, 136 employees from four state agencies worked three days a week from home, according to a news release. The Department of Administrative Services, which oversaw the project, measured a 20% improvement in overall employee performance.

The department also found participants were able to save 273 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

According to Cox, the program is a win-win on all fronts.

“Rolling out expanded teleworking as an option for many more state employees means that everyone wins,” he said in the news release. “Employees win. Managers win. Our air wins. Rural wins. The taxpayer wins.”

He also said in the release he’s “thrilled to see this teleworking program expand to all state agencies.”

Over the next 18 months, the goal is to have 30% of eligible workers, or 2,500 individuals, participating in teleworking, Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, said at a news conference. Spencer Cox quipped the two share no relation, just a good last name.

If successful in reaching that goal, the press release stated it could amount to 1,300 pounds of monthly emissions saved, 63,900 square feet of available building space, potentially move 200 positions off the Wasatch Front, and retention of nearly 60 current employees over the first year who would have otherwise left positions with the state.

As a blind woman, Kristen Cox said the idea “you have to see people to manage them, I just think is ridiculous.”

“It’s just not even in my world,” she added. “We’re interested in managing performance, not presence.”

Simply sitting in an office doesn’t equate to productivity, engagement, or success, she said.

Training is an important part of the program, according to Spencer Cox. Not only will participating employees receive training on how to be a productive teleworker, supervisors will also receive training on how to properly manage a teleworker.

Kristen Cox said she wanted to dispel myths that teleworkers aren’t working but instead spend their time at the gym, for example.

“This program ... increases the efficiency of employees, who accomplish more when they can work from home in close collaboration with their managers and co-workers,” she said in a statement.

She said the program also “drastically increases the efficiency of state-owned and operated spaces,” and can save taxpayers’ dollars since by not spending money on “unnecessarily large workspaces.”

“The program aims to increase building capacity and efficiency, boost employee recruitment, retention and satisfaction, provide job opportunities for rural Utah and decrease emissions that contribute to air pollution, while also improving employee performance,” the news release stated.

During the state’s pilot teleworking program, the Department of Administrative Services, the Department of Technology Services, the Department of Human Resource Management and the Department of Insurance created temporary shared workspaces “designed to increase building capacity and efficiency” in lieu of permanently assigned workspaces for workers, according to the release.

Under the permanent teleworking program, participants will be housed in the West Valley State Office Building, that will be retrofitted with shared “hoteling” workspace for employees, the release stated. The Utah State Legislature approved the purchase in 2019.

Kourianos said potential plans are in the works for using part of the funding toward obtaining an office space in Price for teleworkers.

At the news conference, Spencer Cox noted another plus to the program is allowing the option of flexibility to women who’ve wanted to re-enter the workforce but found it difficult due to personal family choices.

“It is time to see our state workforce transition to this more sustainable, efficient, balanced model,” Spencer Cox said in the release.

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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