Utah Governor, Spencer J. Cox, presented his One Utah Roadmap, outlining the administration’s first 500 days in office. Among the different ideas on how to "streamline and modernize" the state's government is a proposal to restructure and re-examine how to make it work in a world of remote working. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News, via AP, Pool, File)

Part of a series on Utah rural development programs.

Abigail Borrego has experienced all the hustle and bustle of big city life. But when it came time to raise a family, she wanted to return to a smaller area in Utah – one without traffic, pollution and smaller class sizes for her children. 

“I like being able to avoid the traffic. I like the smaller population. Where we live, we’re close to the mountains and have access to national parks and entertainment and shopping,” the 46-year-old Medicaid program specialist said “If I can just stay out of the larger cities. I would just be happy for the rest of my life.”

Borrego is among a growing number of Utah residents working for the state government but outside of the capital of Salt Lake City. It’s part of an initiative to allow government workers to do their jobs remotely, thereby allowing them to remain in smaller communities outside of the Wasatch Front, a metropolitan region of Utah that stretches along the Wasatch Range, containing major cities like Salt Lake City, West Valley City, and Provo.

Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox released his One Utah Roadmap in January, a guide to the administration’s first 500 days in office. In the roadmap, which is broken down into various categories, Cox named a goal to “streamline and modernize state government,” which according to the guide can be achieved by several means, including restructuring and re-examining how to make government work in a remote working world. 

“We find that we have more stability in some of our rural areas, less turnover,” said Casey Cameron, executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “They aren’t leaving for other jobs in the community. These sometimes are some of the best jobs in these communities and they really provide for that economic stability for those families to participate in these jobs.”

Cameron’s agency started an initiative around 2015 to bring more jobs to rural Utah, and many in turn are, in fact, remote jobs in which the employees work from their homes. 

“We started looking at opportunities across the state to move more of our workforce into rural areas that had higher unemployment rates and where we had infrastructure or even just a remote work opportunity where they could work from home,” Cameron said. 

According to the agency, 70% of staff work on the Wasatch Front and 30% work in rural areas of the state. From 2015 to 2017, the agency hired 110 individuals with ties to a rural area, accounting for nearly 31% of all department hires during that time period. From 2017 to the beginning of 2019, the agency hired 109 individuals with ties to a rural area, which accounted for nearly 39% of all department hires during that time period.

The Department of Workforce Services started the initiative in the Eligibility Services division, Cameron said. 

When the agency would hire an eligibility worker, for instance, they would target specific rural areas with higher unemployment rates. 

“We would post those jobs for those rural areas,” she added. 

This became even more important during the pandemic because rural areas are recovering at a slower rate, Cameron said. 

“We specifically posted those jobs off the Wasatch Front so we could support some of those rural communities to support hiring in rural Utah throughout the pandemic,” she said. 

For Borrego, who lives in Cedar City, with her husband, five kids and grandson, the remote job allows her more time with family. 

“The best thing about still being able to work from a small town is that I don’t have to contend with bad air. I don’t have to worry about a long commute,” she said. 

Like Borrego, Gerald Gappmayer, assistant director for Eligibility Services division for the Department of Workforce Services, raising kids in a small town is appealing to him. Also appealing is little traffic and being close to the mountains. 

Gappmayer, who lives in the Four Corners area, said creating and maintaining jobs in rural areas allows kids to grow up and have families in locations where they want to live. 

“I think one of the things we’ve learned over this last year is that pretty much any position can be done anywhere across the state,” said the 53-year-old. “There are a lot of very talented, very capable people in rural Utah who don’t have all the opportunities on the Wasatch Front.” 

Ocean Muterspaugh, who lives in Monticello, is a Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program specialist. 

The 44-year-old said working from home has cut down significantly on her time at work. She used to eat lunch at the office, so she would spend about 10 hours at work. Now, she’s able to work eight hours per day, giving her more time with her family. 

“I feel like the rural communities have more of a voice,” she said. “Not to say they didn’t before. But prior to Covid, I would have never been eligible for this position I have because it was only open to more urban areas. There is talent and people lost in the positions because they don’t live in urban settings.”

This article was supported in part by the Solutions Journalism Network