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After backlash from tech industry, Northern California won't require telecommuting

The plan would have made working from home mandatory 60 percent of the time for office workers at large employers such as Apple, Facebook and Google.
Image: Google Contractors Protest At Alphabet Annual Meeting
A Google employee rides a Google bicycle in Sunnyvale, California, last year.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

SAN FRANCISCO — The Bay Area has dropped a plan to require office workers to telecommute permanently, a sign that there are limits to how much people will want to work from home once the Covid-19 pandemic passes.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional planning body, voted Friday to walk back its plan to make working from home mandatory 60 percent of the time for office workers at large local employers such as Apple, Facebook and Google.

The idea would have made official one of the most radical changes to daily life brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, this time with the goal of limiting greenhouse gas emissions by slashing commutes by car or truck.

But the proposal sparked outrage, including from tech workers and their employers, who said they looked forward to returning to their offices one day. The proposal also hadn’t taken into account workers who might walk, bike or take transit instead of drive.

“I’ve heard relief from a lot of the employers in Silicon Valley,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, a member of the commission who had earlier criticized the mandate idea.

Other regions of the country haven’t gone nearly as far in seeking to formalize changes brought on by Covid-19, and local politicians, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, rebelled.

The vote to reverse the mandate was unanimous. The commission replaced it with a more flexible requirement that employers come up with their own plans to reduce automobile commutes through incentives such as subsidized transit passes, free shuttles or other methods.

The commission still plans to require that by 2035, no more than 40 percent of each employer’s workforce would be eligible to commute by car or truck on an average workday but without a mandate for telecommuting.

“Huge step forward,” said Nick Josefowitz, a commission member and the chief policy officer at SPUR, an urban planning nonprofit in San Francisco. “This new strategy really reduces congestion and pollution, but does so in a flexible way that works for workers and businesses and cities.”

The new requirement is projected to reduce emissions by the same level as the mandate would have, said Dave Vautin, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s staff.

“We did hear the concerns loud and clear, especially from the business community, about the potential impacts,” he said.

California, facing longer and more intense wildfire seasons, has been pursuing other strict mandates as a response to climate change. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed an executive order in September to end the sale of gasoline-powered cars in the state by 2035.