SALT LAKE CITY — Thousands of state employees will work from home through Wednesday as part of the state’s new teleworking program to help clean up Utah's air.
During the pandemic, about 9,000 state employees teleworked, which kept almost 40 tons of pollution out of Utah’s air, the state reported.
Under the new law, state employees who can work remotely will do so on “mandatory action days” which are determined by Utah’s Division of Air Quality based on air quality concerns.
The idea of finding ways to help cut down on Utah’s air pollution isn’t new, but those involved say the pandemic proved remote work makes a difference.
“The idea is we can take all the processes and everything we learned during COVID and teleworking at these high levels and use it in a way proactively in way. Maybe we could help with the air quality,” said Jeff Mottishaw, the managing director of the Utah Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.
Michael Allred is one of the many state employees participating the state's surge teleworking through Wednesday. Beyond the benefit of saving an hour on commuting, he said it is nice to see this step forward in making Utah’s air cleaner.
“During the school year, there are days my kids can’t go out and play at recess because the air quality is bad,” he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided data that showed in 2020, Salt Lake County saw a significant increase in the number of good air quality days and a decrease in a number of bad air quality days.
According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), vehicles are the largest component of air pollution.
“We can see a very good correlation between less driving and better air quality,” said Bryce Bird, the DEQ's director of air quality.
Mottishaw said the concept of “mandatory action days” is to be proactive, rather than reactive.
“We are actually not triggering our 'surge telework days' ... when the air quality is bad — we are actually trying to trigger when we think the air quality could get bad," he said.
The required telework during the pandemic proved to make an impact. The more than 8,600 state employees who worked remotely from April 2020-May 2021 saved about 2.79 tons of tailpipe emissions monthly, according to state data.
Most bad air quality days in Utah last year were due to western wildfires, Bird said.
“If we can avoid driving, if we can make smart choices about heating our homes and using consumer products and be careful with fire, that’s how we’re going to really improve air quality,” he said.
The new program is not met without limitations, Mottishaw said. Employees receive 48 hours’ notice for a “mandatory action day," but when those notices arrive during the weekend, people can miss the notice.
The largest limitation, however, is the size of the program. While it has proven to make a difference during the pandemic to have state employees work remotely, it is going to take more people staying off the roads to fully tackle Utah’s air quality issues. The hope is, Mottishaw said, that private companies will follow suit and surge telework days will reach beyond state employees. Some private companies have already reached out for more information, he said.
“Maybe we could be a good influence, or a good example, and others could see there’s a mechanism in place. It's not too disruptive. We all know how to work from home,” Mottishaw said.
For more information on air quality, click here.