Mayor works remotely as St. Paul urges city and other workers to return to office

It must be a tough sales job trying to talk employees accustomed to working remotely in their sweats to return to their downtown St. Paul offices for at least a few days a week. No doubt it’s even tougher when the city’s top representative and salesman, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, still works remotely much of the time with no sign of returning to his comfortable downtown city hall office.

That’s one of the takeaways from a comprehensive look by the Pioneer Press at the doubtful viability of downtown St. Paul as we knew it, even as Carter and most city, county and state employees rarely set foot in their downtown offices.

The mayor, who declined an interview on the topic, continues to work largely remotely more than three years after the start of the public health crisis, using his third-floor City Hall offices on downtown Kellogg Boulevard as more of a satellite location than a headquarters as he crisscrosses the city on official business. On-site staffing in the mayor’s office appears light.

“Between ribbon cuttings, community engagement events, visits to local businesses and meetings at City Hall, the mayor’s schedule brings him to every neighborhood in our city,” said Kamal Baker, a spokesman for Carter’s office.

Carter may be busy, busy, busy, but downtown businesses that used to cater to office workers largely are not. Downtown St. Paul leaders say government leaders from Gov. Tim Walz on down can and should do something about it by making working in the office mandatory several days a week before it’s too late.

As of June, Securian Financial — downtown St. Paul’s largest private employer — has mandated that most employees return to work in person a minimum of twice per week. Private companies nationally have begun doing the same.

Among government offices, requirements vary, but some are still fully remote.

“If the state took the position to bring people back and mandate it, then the cities and the counties could use the state as a model,” said Tina Gassman, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association. “I’m not saying five days a week. Make it three. Embrace hybrid. If the governor would step forward and do something like that, it would provide so much stability.”

Yet there’s no indication government agencies like the Metropolitan Council plan to bring workers back to its mostly empty offices any time soon.

Based at 390 Robert St. in downtown St. Paul, the Metropolitan Council — the seven-county metro’s regional planning agency — maintains a telework policy that allows most office staff to work fully remotely with approval from their managers. Employees who report in person at least three days per week generally have assigned office space, while other workers can sign out “hotel” spaces, or floating cubicles. Division directors are usually in the office four or five days per week, said John Schadl, a Met Council spokesman. Most workers are not.

There’s a notable exception. The St. Paul City Council requires staff to do their jobs the old-fashioned way mostly, in person and on the premises.

The city council has made it a point to require legislative aides to work from their downtown offices four times per week, with flexible Fridays, said council President Amy Brendmoen.

But most city department leaders have been careful not to enforce a strict mandate on their workers, given shortages in the labor force.

So for now, employees effectively remain in charge of the workplace, particularly in government offices. By the time mandates become the norm, there may not be much for so-called hybrid workers to come back to.