Maine state employees drove 1.1 million fewer miles and took 17,877 fewer trips every week from April through November by working remotely during the pandemic, recent state surveys have found.

Working from home kept 233,103 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air every week, according to preliminary estimates, reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by 7 million pounds over the 30-week period.

The calculations are preliminary, but they are thought to be the first specific metrics in Maine that capture the impact of telework on climate change.

But while the numbers by themselves may appear significant, they actually represent only a small fraction of the total miles driven in Maine. For that reason, the experience of state workers may serve more as an indicator of the potential for deferred driving, if remote work becomes normalized in the broader economy after the pandemic eases.

“This is just one employer in a big state,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who sponsored a bill last year aimed at promoting telework. “But if other employers do it, we can make significant progress. I’m convinced of the potential for other jobs to be similarly converted to telework.”

The survey data complement an ongoing study by the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services on the costs and benefits of remote work for state employees. It was provided in an update letter earlier this month to Gov. Janet Mills and legislative leaders.

The study is being done for the Legislature as an outgrowth of Berry’s bill. The bill’s goal was to get 30 percent of the state’s workforce working remotely by 2030.

Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has “slingshotted us past merely contemplating telework (via the bill) to full implementation,” Kirsten Figueroa, the agency’s commissioner,  noted in her update letter.

Since April, 85 percent of the state’s 9,200 or so workers not in public safety positions have been working from home. State government is Maine’s second-largest employer, behind the MaineHealth health care system.

There’s no way to know yet how much of the state’s workforce will remain remote – and to what degree – after the pandemic eases. The department is working with a consultant, the union that represents most state workers and other interested parties to gather information in a process that has been delayed due to the pandemic.

Though a spokeswoman, Figueroa declined to discuss the draft findings until the study is complete.

Transportation accounts for roughly 54 percent of overall carbon dioxide emissions in Maine. That’s why the state’s new Climate Action Plan, released this month as a blueprint to help the state achieve its ambitious climate change goals, highlights the strategy of reducing the miles vehicles in Maine travel over time. One target is to cut emissions 10 percent by 2025, and 20 percent by 2030, through less driving.

Those reductions would have to come out of a large total. Mid-December figures from the Maine Department of Transportation show that total vehicle miles traveled in the state averaged 34 million a day. That number increases to more than 40 million miles a day in the summer, when visitors flock to the state.

All that driving generates roughly half of Maine’s total carbon emissions. Output peaked at 26.5 million metric tons in 1990, and had fallen to 17.5 million in 2017, according to the latest data from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

But it’s difficult today to get a firm handle on driving behavior, according to Joyce Taylor, chief engineer at the transportation department. Typical habits have been altered by hybrid school schedules, commuters unable to carpool and businesses keeping many workers at home. This has created unusual and unpredictable driving patterns.

“It’s all anecdotal stuff right now,” said Taylor, who served on the climate council.

But Taylor said the current experience at MDOT, which has 1,700 employees, is instructive. She estimated that the Augusta headquarters had 40 or so workers inside this week, in a building that typically accommodates 450. Remote working has proven to be very productive at the agency, Taylor said, and she expects it to remain at some level after the pandemic.

Other transportation strategies to cut emissions include expanded, cleaner mass transit, a ramped up vanpool program and new subsidies to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. But remote work, Taylor said, may provide a more-immediate path to carbon reductions at a lower cost.

That perspective is shared by Kristina Egan, executive director at the Greater Portland Council of Governments. Egan is a former transportation consultant who served on the Climate Council.

“I think Maine could double down on encouraging remote work,” Egan said. “The state can lead by example. It kind of gives everyone permission to extend remote work benefits after the pandemic.”

Egan said her 25-person staff has largely worked remotely since March. She has seen many benefits, including holding online meetings that are more inclusive because people can attend without driving to Portland.

In her update, Figueroa touched on survey data that’s likely to inform the state’s decisions on how to move forward on telework.

Information from public-sector employers in Maine and out of state found that eight of 10 respondents had some or all of their workforce telecommuting. Each had various procedures, such as limitations on the maximum number of work-from-home days and supplying some form of technology.

Other survey data, from the state’s Bureau of Human Resources, found growing satisfaction among employees working from home. Last May, 36 percent of respondents wanted to continue working remotely. In November, 89 percent said they were satisfied with home working, and 86 percent reported their productivity was efficient and effective, compared to being in the office.

Berry, Taylor and Egan all pointed out that a deeper adaption of telework will hinge on the ability of Mainers to have high-speed internet connections.

The Climate Plan articulates a goal of deploying broadband to 95 percent of Maine homes by 2025 and 99 percent by 2030. The ConnectMaine Authority’s Broadband Action Plan estimates the state will need to invest $200 million by 2025 to achieve that.

In her update, Figueroa noted state government’s potential to be a leader in workplace innovation, environmental stewardship and economic development.

“An ongoing and thoughtful conversation about telework is certain to unfold as we continue to process the unexpected lessons of the pandemic telework experience,” she wrote.

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