University of Iowa seeks labor law advice for employees working outside state

By | October 3, 2023
University of Iowa seeks labor law advice for employees working outside state

Members of the Iowa Board of Regents listen during a meeting at the Levitt Center for University Advancement in Iowa City on June 3, 2021. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa is seeking help to ensure compliance with other states’ labor and payroll laws and practices for employees working outside Iowa, as the campus approves more remote-work arrangements amid COVID-propelled changes.

Although the number of UI employees working out of state remains small — about 110 out of a full-time equivalent of more than 24,600 — the university is looking to hire a company to provide a “multistate compliance solution for labor and employment law practices.”

“The university has never contracted with a vendor for these services in the past,” UI Chief Human Resources Officer and Associate Vice President Cheryl Reardon said via email. “However, the university is seeking a vendor to help navigate payroll and labor laws unique to each state, to review how various situations apply to the University of Iowa and to help mitigate any risks.”

All three of Iowa’s public universities allowed, enabled and — in many cases — instructed employees to work remotely when the pandemic first began and continued to surge through 2020. But in May 2021, the Iowa Board of Regents lifted its state of emergency and instructed the UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa to return faculty and staff to campus “to the extent their traditional (pre-pandemic) employment responsibilities require.”

In that May directive, board President Mike Richards said university presidents could continue approving remote or hybrid work arrangements “in circumstances when there is a legitimate business rationale that serves the best interests of the institution.”

And all three campuses told The Gazette they’ve continued to do so.

The UI, for example, has embarked on an extended “Future of Work” pilot program aimed at reimagining how and where employees work — focusing on the “long-term potential for remote and hybrid work, flexible schedules, and other work arrangements that may help the university attract and retain talent and reduce costs.”

“Participating colleges and divisions report that offering a greater range of work arrangement options has helped them compete in the current labor market,” according to a November summary of the UI’s flexible work arrangements to date. “Regional unemployment rates are low, and competition for employees in sectors such as information technology is fierce.”

That UI summary notes the vast majority — more than 96 percent — of the about 1,800 recent remote and hybrid work arrangements involve employees working from off-campus sites in Iowa.

“The university has approved more hybrid and remote work agreements, particularly in the state of Iowa, during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the university’s ‘Future of Work’ pilot program,” Reardon said.

The UNI, which has 14 of its 1,600-some employees working outside Iowa, reports “out-of-state employment has increased as a result of the pandemic due to labor shortages and other circumstances,” according to Michelle Byers, assistant vice president and human resources director.

Iowa State reports 67 of its 6,800-some employees work out of state or outside the country.

“Additionally, ISU has other individuals performing services for the university who are employed by other entities to comply with laws of local international jurisdictions, such as in Rome and Uganda,” according to ISU Vice President for Human Resources Kristi Darr. “Out-of-state employees provide a variety of important services to the university, including running our international campuses and programs and performing student recruiting services.”

Darr reports ISU hasn’t seen a “dramatic increase” in out-of-state employment because of the pandemic but acknowledged the labor market is “very tight and shortages of qualified employees may create the need and opportunity to have more out-of-state workers in certain jobs that are difficult to fill and to fulfill university needs in other locations.”

Neither the UNI nor ISU have contracted with a company to provide out-of-state employment law advisement. But ISU reported it has, on a case-by-case basis, employed experts in other locations to provide legal advice.

None of the institutions have faced lawsuits or administrative complaints for non-compliance, officials told The Gazette.

According to the UI’s request for help navigating out-of-state employment practices, it’s looking for — among other things — possible “vended payment solutions or risk-mitigation techniques and support.”

A successful bidder would help the UI identify “high-risk areas” and strategies for reducing risk; suggest payment options and solutions; develop a long-term plan for employment compliance outside Iowa; offer best practices — possibly related to home office environments and connectivity; and help with international payroll services.

Answering a question about its request for proposals, UI officials reported the most out-of-state employees are working in Illinois, followed by Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin and California.

“The university allows employees to work out-of-state only if there is a strong business justification,” Reardon said. “Allowing employees to live outside the state helps certain departments with recruitment and retention, space savings, etc. In some cases, working outside the state is required for the specific position.”

Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.

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