WASHINGTON — Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway stressed the negative effect of telework on Madison businesses Wednesday, and urged mayors gathered from around the country to consider its long-term implications on their cities as well as solutions to get people to increase their support for local businesses.

Speaking here at the 90th U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting, Rhodes-Conway said mayors must deal with the “seismic shift” in where people work and “what it means for the future of working and living in our urban cores.”

She did not present any concrete proposals for how to address the problem, but one idea she suggested would also tackle another problem the city faces: Repurpose vacant office buildings into housing.

“There are all sorts of things that either impact or are impacted by this trend: land use, housing, child care, transit, mental health,” she said. “It presents a challenge for us as employers, but also for us as city leaders.”

According to the American Institute for Research, 45% of all full-time U.S. employees now work from home either full-time or part-time — a sharp increase from the 6% who did before the pandemic. The difference is of particular concern in Madison, which ranked second in the nation for remote workers in December.

For Madison, remote work has meant fewer workers eating out and a reduction of goods and services coming in from out-of-town. That has created drops in sales and had serious implications for small and locally owned businesses, Rhodes-Conway said.

It also has made Downtown Madison a much quieter place, she said.

“You can see the impact visually and in the hours that stores are open, coffee shops closed, et cetera,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We have to think about, as mayors, what are new and innovative strategies to market our small and local businesses to our population to get folks to come out to them, even though they’re not necessarily in the office.”

In addressing the telework issue, Rhodes-Conway emphasized the importance of centering racial and gender equity.

“The impacts of this are not felt equally,” she said. “People of color and women have not had equal access to those professional opportunities that allow remote work.”

Rhodes-Conway urged local leaders to look at the challenges as opportunities to remake their cities to better serve its workforce.

“It’s going to take us being thoughtful and intentional about this,” Rhodes-Conway said. “It’s not going to happen on its own. What’s going to happen if we don’t do anything is businesses are going to increasingly fail, and our downtowns are going to hollow out — which none of us want.”

Rhodes-Conway’s concerns contrast with those of Gov. Tony Evers, a fellow Democrat, who supports increasing remote work opportunities. Last May, the Evers administration released the “Vision 2030” strategic plan, which proposes getting more state employees to work from home.

In March, Evers vetoed a bill that would have required him to submit a plan within three weeks for returning state employees to return to work.

“This work should not be discounted or demeaned,” Evers said in his veto message. “These workers deserve our gratitude and respect.”

At the conference, Rhodes-Conway presented her concerns to the Council on Metro Economies and the New American City, the economic research arm of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. She is co-vice chair of the Council with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

While Rhodes-Conway spoke about the urgency of the issue at the conference, in a follow-up interview she said it is “premature to speculate” if it will translate into new policy in Madison.

“I don’t know that it’s something that you address through policy necessarily,” Rhodes-Conway said. “This is something that is happening in the workforce that mayors need to be cognizant of and to be proactively thinking about rather than just letting it happen to them.”

“I think it’s going to depend on decisions that are made by employers, and certainly we are considering ways that we can bring more housing to every neighborhood in our city, including Downtown,” she said. “So that’s something that we have been working on, continue to work on, no question.”


Published in conjunction with The Wisconsin State Journal