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DULUTH – The St. Louis County Board adopted a mobile work policy Tuesday, paving the way for more employee flexibility.

About 45% of 1,800 county employees worked remotely during much of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, from March 2020 to last June.

Some employees appreciated remote work and want it to continue, and some services then were delivered better and more efficiently to county residents and visitors, said Jim Gottschald, the county's human resources director.

"We see it as a new way of managing our workforce," he said. "It's not necessarily a response to the pandemic, but certainly the pandemic proved to us that we could."

The policy comes as worries grow about working on-site amid rising coronavirus cases fueled by the delta variant.

Union leader Dennis Frazier told the board his phone was "blowing up" from members concerned about COVID and the workplace.

"People are worried and scared," he said, but don't necessarily want to work from home full time. They want flexibility "to be safe," said Frazier, president of AFSCME Local 66 in Duluth.

The County Board unanimously approved the policy, which only applies to positions that allow remote work.

Employees aren't required to work from home, and must seek approval from a supervisor. In-person services will remain, but some, like certain court appearances and virtual health visits, could be online.

The move is responsive to those who want remote county services, and helps maintain the "highest and best work/life balance for employees, which is more and more important," said County Administrator Kevin Gray.

And as more job seekers come to expect such flexibility, it will help the county keep up with the private workforce, Commissioner Patrick Boyle said.

Because of the policy's discretionary nature, Commissioner Ashley Grimm asked that guidance from the county's public health department be shared on what might trigger a more inclusive remote work situation.

With unknown variants and the potential for further community disease spread, people want to know those plans, she said.

The board also approved a new wildfire protection plan that invests in public education and the management of forests hit hard by spruce budworm infestations, which contribute to fire growth.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450