Remote work demands state give up office space, Senate president says

By: - February 28, 2023 7:17 am

The state must relinquish some rented office buildings amid a shrinking state workforce and shift to hybrid and remote work, Senate President Nicholas Scutari said. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Senate President Nicholas Scutari said he wants to force the state to cut down its real-estate footprint amid continuing declines in the state government workforce and a shift to hybrid and remote work spurred by the pandemic.

Scutari (D-Union), who chairs a legislative panel that oversees state leases, said in an interview Monday that New Jersey is “moving into a new phase of work” that does not require the kind of rented office space the state once needed.

Roughly 40% of state workers are no longer required to show up in person to their offices, Scutari said, though it’s not clear how that figure changes day-to-day.

“If we’re going to go into a work-from-home scenario that is long-term, then we should be considering flexible space, space where you don’t have an office and your degree hanging on the wall,” he said.

The panel, called the Joint State Leasing and Space Utilization Committee, met Monday for the first time since December 2021 to approve five notices for proposed leases submitted by Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, but the committee deferred consideration of 23 others.

“You can debate the benefits of work-from-home, but if you are going to allow people to work from home, then I think we have to reinvent what an office space looks like and save taxpayers’ money by not having these huge offices,” Scutari said.

Scutari declined to say whether the administration had responded to his request for a plan detailing the future of New Jersey’s government offices.

The state launched a telework pilot program in July that requires all state departments and authorities to offer up to two days of remote work per week. Some employees — namely those whose duties require they interact in person with residents — are not eligible.

A Treasury spokesperson said the state is “currently undertaking a longer term strategic plan for space utilization statewide” and thanked Scutari for calling the meeting and approving five leases. But added delays had incurred costs, they said.

“Currently, leases on two state buildings have expired, and landlords have issued demand notices, which cost the state additional money,” the spokesperson said.

The state has “negotiated new lease terms at a lower rent. Those leases are awaiting approval,” they added.

The total cost of expiring leases is so far unclear, but the expirations are expected to cost the state $5 million in higher rental payments triggered by conversions to month-to-month terms in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“That is a concern, but you know what, the long-term savings could be substantial. So that’s my concern — if we’re going to get out of the office space business, then let’s get out of it,” Scutari said.

The five leases approved Monday included four New Jersey State Police facilities across the state and a Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs recruiting and retention center in Passaic. The three-member body approved each lease unanimously.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.