SALT LAKE CITY — Unhealthy air clogged with pollutants can be a barrier to good health, but it just could be the springboard for more flexibility among Utah government employees to work from home when pollution reaches extreme levels.

The Wasatch Front’s episodic winter inversions packed with fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, and high ozone days in the summer would be the trigger for eligible workers to participate in a “surge telework” program under a measure proposed by Sen. Daniel McKay, R-Riverton.

SB15 unanimously passed the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Monday and goes to the full House for further consideration.

Supporters of the measure say the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year aptly illustrated during shutdowns what type of impact fewer vehicles on the road have on levels of air pollution coming from tailpipes.

A couple of studies have already looked at the correlating decrease in pollution as the state struggled with massive lockdowns to help stem the spread of the deadly virus.

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McKay’s bill directs the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget to coordinate with state agencies to identify those workers who may be eligible to participate in the “surge telework” program on bad air days or under other special circumstances, such as extreme weather delivering heavy snowfall or high wind.

The state of Utah implemented a pilot program in 2018 involving 136 employees across four state agencies: the Department of Administrative Services; the Division of Purchasing; the Division of Technology Services; and the Utah Department of Human Resource Management.

Pedestrians cross 300 West in Salt Lake City with smog visible in the background in 2015. A bill working its way through the state Capitol would step up Utah’s game on teleworking during bad air days. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

What officials learned is that worker productivity among those employees shot up 23% and the program eliminated 273 pounds of vehicle emissions during the pilot period.

A year later, the state moved to expand the program for another 2,500 workers.

Utah's pilot teleworking program for state workers saving time, money, emissions and stress

McKay’s measure is one of several pieces of air quality legislation unveiled this session to fight the state’s pollution problem, which for years landed it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of regions out of attainment for meeting federal clean air standards.

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Those areas have since come off the “naughty” list, but that hasn’t stemmed the effort to find new and innovative ways to clean Utah’s air.

Under Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget, there are millions of dollars dedicated to energy efficiency projects, a $350 million effort to double-track FrontRunner trains and $6 million for electric vehicle infrastructure in rural Utah, building on what the Legislature funded in 2020.

Unhealthy levels of air pollution aggravate existing respiratory issues and have been linked to early onset of dementia and premature death.

Rep. Joel Briscoe D-Salt Lake City, said McKay’s measure will help people like Briscoe’s wife, who suffers from asthma, by getting more cars off the road when possible.

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