Here’s a simple plan to help clean up Utah’s air: keep workers home during pollution buildups

A new system is being implemented to alert designated state employees ahead of bad air days and ask them to work from home.

Thousands of Utah state employees have been working from home for months during the pandemic and, under a bill that cleared the Legislature without a single dissenting vote, more will be asked to do so on bad air days.

SB15, sponsored by Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, would notify eligible “surge” state employees ahead of mandatory action days, identified by The Division of Air Quality — when an air quality dip is predicted — to stay off the roads and work remotely to reduce the Wasatch Front’s air pollution.

The bill is an effort to expand, formalize and permanently incorporate parts of a telework program that began as a pilot project in 2018 and 2019 and then and ramped up when the pandemic hit. It’s designed to stay in place long after the COVID-19 virus is brought under control.

Jeff Mottishaw, of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, says the effort is also meant to be a model others could follow.

“Part of that, too, was not only for the benefit of state agencies and government, but we thought that we could be a leader, and put something together that could then be replicated,” Mottishaw said.

Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, is a fan of SB15. “While this bill does not directly affect local governments, we think it’s a great example for private businesses,” Gruber said. “Teleworking is here to stay.”

Air quality and the pandemic

Worldwide and in Utah, emissions plummeted last spring when stay-at-home orders swept the globe due to COVID-19.

“Precursor emissions lowered with decreased traffic and business use. In populated areas along the Wasatch Front, people weren’t visiting their offices or going out to eat at restaurants as much,” said Division of Air Quality director Bryce Bird. “All the bad things for the economy ended up being good for air quality.”

A study by Utah Foundation and UCAIR found that “travel to and from work may account for nearly one-third of all passenger vehicle miles traveled.”

Utah last summer saw the largest increase in telework among all Mountain States, the research found. More than half of all Utah households had at least one person make a shift toward remote work.

Last August set an all time record for the number of days above 95 degrees. Since ozone, a key component of smog, usually forms along the Wasatch Front at those temperatures, Utah was expected to have an especially bad air quality year. However, even with wildfire smoke, hot and dry summer days, and other usual emissions, 2020 was still one of the cleanest air quality years on record, and officials are attributing the improvement to stay-home orders early in the year.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“The air quality for the entire end of March and the rest of April were some of the best we’d ever had. It was because we had lower trips per day for vehicles,” McCay, the SB15 sponsor, said.

Passenger cars and trucks account for about one-quarter of dangerous small particulate pollution and ozone-related emissions.

The biggest takeaway from the drop in emissions last spring is that it shows Utahns have the “will and ability to do so — we just have to come together to make it happen,” Grace Olscamp, a HEAL Utah (Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah) policy associate, said.

Changing lifestyles

Nick Smart of Salt Lake City is one of the Utahns working remotely who said they’ve cut way back on driving since the pandemic hit. “I bought a brand new car in September and it has only 1,000 to 2,000 miles on it to date,” said Smart, digital marketing manager for Wildworks, Inc.

Likewise, Gary Sapp, a state computer programmer who lives in West Valley City, said he’s driving only short distances and feels like its contributing to reducing carbon emissions. “I’m glad we are helping with the climate issue even if it is accidentally due to the shutdown.”

Although some Utah’s traffic has returned, it is still 75% to 90% of what it has been in the past, according to Bird. He encouraged telecommuting and carpooling beyond the pandemic.

“If we take action to reduce the vehicle emissions during the hot dry periods in the summer, we can delay or even prevent pollution from impacting public health,” Bird said.

Telework alone, however, is not a silver bullet to clean up Utah’s air, Shawn Teigen, director of research at Utah Foundation and principal author of its teleworking study, said. “It’s like one tool in the tool shed. People are going to have to get back into buses and into FrontRunner and into TRAX, because that also has a benefit.”

Several Utah residents who talked to The Tribune said their work-from-home experience has made them more open to using public transit, and a few even said because of the pandemic, they made the switch to being a single car household.

Jessica Dalton, associate director for annual giving at Westminster College, said hers is a two-car family, but with pandemic innovations like telework and grocery delivery, she and her husband have realized that living with one car could be “absolutely doable.”

“If we were faced with a decision, I would absolutely shift my lifestyle to revolve around one car,” said the Sandy resident, citing the savings as a particularly motivating factor. She said she would also love expanded walking and transit options in suburban areas like her own.

Telework sustainability

Utah will only reap the environmental benefits of telework if employers and workers consider it a sustainable model over the long term. Factors such as productivity and work-life balance also come into play when deciding how and where to work in the future.

So far, the results look promising. The state’s telework pilot program found an employee productivity increase of more than 20% in an early report, with more data expected in coming months.

McCay said SB15 may be able to change the dynamics of what he calls “generational think.”

“Managers of state departments are stuck in their ways, thinking that the best way to keep employees accountable is to have them show up to the office every day,” said the Riverton lawmaker, who works for the property and development arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

McCay said feedback from his employees indicates they achieved a better work-life balance and felt happier overall when working from home.

Other Utahns interviewed for this story agreed with that assessment and said they hoped to continue working remotely after COVID-19 is contained.

“Getting interrupted or sidetracked was a way of life when I was working in person,” said Nina Bennett, a patient diagnostic assistant with Huntsman Cancer. “But from home, I don’t have all the distractions of idle chitchat all the time, or constant clinic interruptions between staff and patients.”

Bennett works full time, has a third grader who was virtual until recently and is a full-time student herself. “Since working from home, I have been able to stay more on top of chores in between phone calls, meetings and other parts of my job,” she said.

Pete Busche, a Sandy resident and manager with the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, said that once he enrolled his children in daycare and school, telework has become “much more manageable” and he largely enjoys working from home.

“I have likely spent more time with my kids than any full-time working parent ever has.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Pete Busche, an audit and compliance manager with the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority, poses for a portrait beside his makeshift standing desk while working remotely from his family’s home in Sandy on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

On the other side, some Utahns acknowledge struggling with productivity and balance while working from home.

“Having small children and trying to telework is nearly impossible,” Maura Hahnenberger, a Salt Lake Community College geosciences professor, said.

Her 3-year-old son is currently not in day care because she is immunocompromised and her partner and child both have asthma.

“On days when I am working from home, it is extremely challenging to find balance between caregiving and work since my child wants my attention all of the time,” Hahnenberger said. “It is really hard as a working parent right now. I constantly feel like I am failing at every aspect of my life. It is exhausting and stressful, but we just have to keep going.”

Sam Taylor, who works in software product management, said the line between office hours and personal time is blurred. “Notifications disrupt me during ‘off hours’ and the home life responsibilities I’ve neglected haunt my work hours,” Taylor, of Salt Lake City, said.

Many Utah teleworkers said maintaining a healthy work-life balance while staying productive from home is a mental game. Several noted because they work and live in the same space, they feel that they are always on the clock. They have to set boundaries to differentiate between their work and home lives, such as creating a physical at-home work space, communicating with family members about their schedules and availability, and turning off work-related notifications outside business hours.

Dalton said there was a “learning curve” for her and her children, who are currently learning from home through remote schooling.

“We’ve gotten into a really good routine,” she said. “I have my meeting schedule set on my office door, so my kids know when they can interrupt me and know when they can’t.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Dalton, Assoc. Director of Annual Giving at Westminster College who has transitioned to full-time at work-from-home where her slippers are consistently part of her daily wardrobe, posts a schedule of her Zoom meetings on the door to her office to let her family know when she is off limits.

Meike Peters, a technical writer from Salt Lake City, said so long as she remains disciplined with how she uses her time, telework has actually improved her work-life balance, because the time she saves on her commute allows her to spend more time exercising, cooking, taking walks and doing other things she loves.

For her, creating a physical working space helps her mentally separate her work life from her personal life. “We changed the layout of our house a little bit so that I would have a dedicated office,” she said.

Despite the difficult balancing act, many Utahns say they enjoy the flexibility and freedom offered by telework.

“Instead of just having my carcass in a certain place from one point of the clock to another point of the clock, I have control over dealing with the workload that’s there, and I can kind of do that whenever I want,” said Jeff Dickey, a geographic information systems manager from Sandy. “I think in a lot of ways, it’s more efficient, because every aspect of my life is able to be done when it needs to, rather than an arbitrary, ‘Be here from this time to this time.’”

The Utah Foundation’s study said that even post-pandemic, when more employers and workers are likely to return to more traditional work arrangements, “a targeted move toward periodic remote working – focused on periods of poor air quality – could help to diminish the length and severity of Utah’s periodic poor air quality.”