Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic first emptied downtown Portland, its comeback remains lethargic, in large part because workers have not returned to their cubicles.
Tech, insurance, utility and law firm employees have fled. So too have office workers in city bureaus: At least 40% of city employees are still working remotely, according to city of Portland estimates, most of them required to come to the office only one day a week.
On any given day in Portland, according to a draft report by research firm ECONorthwest obtained by WW, the number of workers downtown is 55% lower than it was pre-pandemic.
Baltazar Osorio, manager of Bridge City Cafe two blocks from City Hall, says he used to cater massive orders of sandwiches to The Standard and the 40-floor Wells Fargo Center for meetings. City Hall, too.
“We thought we were going to recover 100% throughout this summer, and we just haven’t,” says Osorio, who adds his profits are a third of pre-pandemic totals. “There’s a lot of empty spaces here.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler is so alarmed by the void at the city’s heart that he is trying to entice developers to flip their empty office buildings into apartments, as first reported Aug. 26 on wweek.com. What he hasn’t done is require his own city workforce to return to the office, a mandate that could set a precedent for downtown revival.
Documents obtained by WW show why he and his colleagues on the Portland City Council are hesitating.
If city leaders want to repopulate downtown offices, they will have to do so over the objections of hundreds of city workers who say in writing that requiring them to work in person is racist, sexist, ableist and a violation of the city’s climate goals.
In a June letter, 70 employees—including leaders of each of the city’s 12 affinity groups representing a total of more than 1,300 city employees—said they should not be brought back to work to revitalize downtown, calling it “inappropriate and not an essential part of our job.”
Wheeler’s office tells WW he doesn’t have unilateral authority to mandate a return to work, even though he has acted unilaterally on other issues, including homeless camp sweeps.
“Since the COVID emergency declaration is over, the mayor does not have the sole discretion to make this decision,” his office says. “Council is working together to develop a strategy that goes beyond the return of employees who are currently teleworking to city facilities.”
To be sure, city employees make up only a small percentage of the workforce that’s abandoned downtown—but they’ve long been a symbol of downtown’s bustle.
Their absence raises questions about the future of the city’s most important neighborhood—the one at its center. Portland built its downtown on the urban planning teachings of Jane Jacobs, who argued that “eyes on the street” were what kept a city safe and thriving. Remote work threatens to remove those eyes for good.
Recent polling shows that many citizens fear visiting the city center because of homeless camps and crime. A paradox has ensued: Nobody wants to go downtown because it feels unsafe, but the only antidote to that is people going downtown.
“We’ve known for a long time that the presence of other people has a lot to do with whether people feel safe or not,” says Ethan Seltzer, emeritus professor at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. “If employees don’t come back, what are we headed towards?”
On June 21, leaders of the city’s 12 affinity groups—linked by a common identity such as Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, working parents and women—sent a joint letter to the City Council, decrying the city’s approach to return to work. They urged the city to allow remote work permanently.
Perhaps surprisingly, that demand did not focus on COVID.
“Without our input, without transparency, and by continuing top-down decision-making that devalues staff contributions,” the letter read, “we fear the city will continue to support racist, ableist, and sexist policies, the very systems of oppression we want to dismantle.”
They wrote that requiring employees to come back was especially unfair to marginalized groups because teleworking results in “fewer microaggressions and fewer instances of overt racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., in the workplace or during their commute.” They also wrote that city employees cared about carbon emissions from commuting and argued that they were “saving lives from traffic violence with fewer vehicle miles traveled.”
The city’s exemption process for those with disabilities, they added, was intrusive, nonconfidential and retraumatizing, and they asked the city to “discontinue using a medical model of disability and adopt a social and human rights model of disability.” They levied a warning: “There is also real organizational risk of noncompliance with federal and state law.”
The five city commissioners responded to the letter July 11. They acknowledged employees’ concerns but made no concrete promises.
“We understand the challenges posed to all employees during the pandemic and we are looking for reasonable and equitable ways at returning to work, and thus were deeply concerned by some of the stories shared in your letter,” they wrote. “We know that we cannot return to the work of 2019 and we support figuring out systems that center our humanity and are legally viable as employers.”
(Commissioners also wrote that such discussions were taking place with ongoing union bargaining. Those unions did not respond to WW’s questions.)
In response to the letter, the city formed a stakeholder group to craft policy recommendations. The mayor’s office could not say when those recommendations would come to the council, but they will be presented internally to the city’s COVID-19 policy team Sept. 8.
But two meetings held by the city’s affinity groups in late July and early August offer a glimpse into just how contentious the discussion around remote work has become.
About 150 employees showed up at each meeting. There were ample tears and anger.
Thirty-six pages’ worth of meeting notes shared with WW recount hundreds of comments by employees, listing fears about returning downtown.
“Why is it city employees’ responsibility to rejuvenate a dangerous, unsafe downtown?” one employee asked.
One Black woman said she faced catcalling, harassment and racist discrimination when riding TriMet to work and didn’t want to return. Another person said: “I do not like my Blackness being weaponized by others [as a reason] for not returning to the office. We do not all have the same work experience.”
Another said requiring a return is “negligent, embarrassing, outdated, and furthering the impact of climate change on our already fragile environment.”
Meanwhile, 27% of Multnomah County workers work fully remotely. Another 22% work a hybrid schedule, and 50% have worked in person throughout the pandemic—including health workers, case investigators, road maintenance workers, janitors and other support workers at the Justice Center.
Those city and county workers who had to show up every day throughout the pandemic present a second tension for city leaders to weigh.
In a June workplace survey, some essential city employees said it felt unfair that office workers could complain about coming back downtown when frontline workers never had a choice. (In that same survey, first reported by WW, 65% of city employees said they’d look for other work if required to come into the office more than one or two days a week.)
Debbie Caselton is chair of Diverse and Empowered Employees of Portland, a volunteer group that oversees the city’s affinity groups.
“Overwhelmingly, it’s been hats off and kudos for the folks that have had to come in, and that they should get some sort of hazard pay or bonuses for having been required to,” Caselton says. “But if you have a job that doesn’t require that, you should be able to continue to work remotely.”
The mayor’s office tells WW that 29 employees, as of last December, were living outside of Oregon and Washington. That’s an issue causing great rancor in Oregon state government (see page 6).
Seltzer says the mayor and his City Council colleagues should lead by example.
“They ought to be taking a walk at lunch every day. They should invite you to go along with them. They should have live music every Friday, and a happy hour,” Seltzer says. “And people will fill in the blanks.”
All of the mayor’s staff works a hybrid schedule. His office would not specifically say how many days.