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When your West Wing job is really, really far from the Oval Office

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Emmy Ruiz, the White House’s director of political strategy and outreach, works from her home in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Emmy Ruiz, the White House’s director of political strategy and outreach, works from her home in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON >> Emmy Ruiz, 37, was shoveling snow into a bucket in her backyard one frigid morning last month with her toddler while dialing into a conference call for work.

During the power crisis in Texas after a winter storm that left millions without heat or electricity, Ruiz’s house in Austin lacked water for days. She was collecting snow to melt so her family could flush the toilets.

It is not how one would necessarily picture the White House’s director of political strategy and outreach spending her workday, but nothing about this year has been typical for those who have joined the Biden administration.

Many members of the White House staff have been working remotely because of strict coronavirus protocols instituted to reduce the number of people in the building with the president. But Ruiz is one of dozens of administration officials who have not moved to Washington at all.

More than seven weeks after President Joe Biden took office, White House staff members are working from California, Puerto Rico, Texas and elsewhere around the country, a striking indication of the strange reality of building a new administration during a pandemic as well as the sharp shift from the Trump administration’s casual approach to dealing with the coronavirus.

Many Biden officials have never met in person with colleagues they interact with on a daily basis. Gina McCarthy, the White House national climate adviser, has met her chief of staff only on a video screen.

Some officials working from afar said they hoped to move to Washington by the summer, but they have no firm plans to do so.

Anne Filipic, Biden’s director of management and administration, said there were “no immediate plans” to bring a full staff back to the White House. She added that the administration would “remain flexible with transition timelines given the unprecedented circumstances.”

Alluding to the fact that Biden had managed his general election campaign almost entirely remotely, Filipic added that the “Biden-Harris team has successful and unique experience working together while remote all across the country.”

The setup might be inconvenient and somewhat anticlimactic for government officials who would normally be sporting coveted White House badges and establishing regular after-hours watering holes. But those who had chosen not to move during the coronavirus pandemic, like Ruiz, said it had also given them an outside-the-bubble perspective as they experienced firsthand a grim reality that many of the administration’s policies are trying to address.

Ruiz said she became alarmed when she lost water after the deep freeze in Texas last month and immediately recognized it as a “huge red flag.” Because she lives near a hospital, her neighborhood had until then been prioritized in keeping power and utilities running. She called the nurses she knew at the hospital, where her son was born, “and they were painting a very dire picture,” Ruiz said. “The hospitals needed water, and in some cases they had to transfer patients, but the roads were ice.”

Ruiz relayed the concerns she was hearing in her neighborhood to Julie Chávez Rodriguez, the White House intergovernmental affairs director, who was in direct contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Security Council. Ruiz also reached out to local government officials and county judges to help put them in touch with the federal government for support.

Ruiz said she hoped to move to Washington sometime by the end of spring.

“My mom has been living with us,” she said. “We have a 3-year-old who is part of a pod for child care. And my mom has a caregiver, too. It’s so hard to blow that up.”

She is not alone in being hesitant to upend a carefully constructed safe zone.

Erin Pelton, a senior adviser on the Domestic Policy Council, has been home-schooling her 7-year-old and her 5-year-old from her condo in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she moved with her husband after Hurricane Maria to help rebuild the island.

“We took them out of school this year and have a teacher coming a few hours a day,” she said. “Our goal is to move after the school year.”

Waiting for the beginning of a new school year to relocate a family to Washington is not unusual when a new administration takes office. Parents working in a new government will often commute home on the weekends, but the pandemic has put a halt to that practice.

Before Pelton accompanied Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, on a trip to the border with Mexico last week, “I hadn’t left the island since last February,” she said.

“Trump always spoke in negative terms about the government and the island and how corrupt it was,” Pelton continued. “When we, the Biden administration, are unlocking some of those funds, it’s a big deal in the paper. I see how closely the local press is reporting on what the administration is doing and how it impacts the island.”

For now, Pelton said, the benefits of that perspective and a safe schooling setup outweighed the loss of networking with her colleagues.

“There are colleagues that need to be in because of classified information,” she said. “I can do this from my bedroom.”

Maggie Thomas, 33, was named chief of staff of the domestic climate policy office in January. She still has not met McCarthy, her boss, in person. In July, Thomas, who had been living in Boston while working for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, packed up a Dodge Caravan with her boyfriend and drove across the country to move into a house across the street from her parents in Sacramento, California.

“My dad was very high risk for COVID, and being so far away really compelled me to be part of the community and part of their everyday life,” she said.

Thomas said she had grown comfortable in her routine at home.

“I imagine I’ll eventually move to Washington,” she said, “but we are learning how to run a government remotely.”

Living in California also meant experiencing the effects of climate change as more than erratic lines on a chart.

“There were a good three or four weeks after the wildfires when the air quality was so dangerous we couldn’t even go outside,” Thomas said. “When you live through not being able to go outside, it starts to take on new meaning.”

There were some downsides, she said.

“I’m learning all the processes and offices and who everyone is,” she said. “I’ve read their names in the news, and you sit there and you’re like, ‘Who do I talk to about this?’ And then you just look around the house.”

Her neighbors, on the other hand, feel important by association. Thomas’ desk overlooks the sidewalk, where neighbors often pass by during the day and see her glued to her screen.

“One person told me that every time she waves, she thinks, ‘I’m waving to the westernmost wing of the White House,” Thomas said.

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