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Community First, Stay Remote: ITS members ask to keep working from home amid lingering COVID concerns

By KATE MOSTACCIO

Social distancing remains critical to keeping the COVID-19 infection rate down and telecommuting has allowed many workers to maintain that distance during the workday.

But PEF members at the state Office of Information Technology Services (ITS), who were instrumental in moving as much of the state workforce to a remote working model as possible, are now being ordered to return to offices ahead of the expiration of the emergency statewide telecommuting agreement between PEF and New York state.

The move, Division leaders say, makes no sense and, in fact, only endangers the members, their families and their communities.

“ITS is probably the No. 1 agency to be able to telecommute,” said Division 357 Council Leader Ron O’Bryan. “I am thoroughly confused. We should be leading the telecommuting front. Ninety-seven percent of us can work from home. We know that. They did a survey. We are more effective working from home. I don’t know what the big rush is to bring us back into the office.”

PEF has learned most members impacted by the early returns work in Portfolios, which altogether make up the largest portion of ITS. Conversely, a quarter to a third of employees who work for ITS are in the Chief Operations Office, which isn’t forcing anyone to return to work who can accomplish their duties from home. The same is true for the Chief Technology Office, which employs a smaller but significant portion of ITS members, where management has indicated there is no plan to return to the workplace before October.

Management plans for Portfolios would bring 25 percent of staff back on a rotating basis Aug. 31, 50 percent by Sept. 21 and although concrete plans are not in place for after, Portfolio heads point to the ITS Forward Plan which called for 75 percent then 100 percent of staff returning to the office.

For members at ITS, the issue isn’t about not wanting to return to worksites, it’s about protecting their community and avoiding unnecessary density in the workplace. Many members filed Step 1 grievances, raising their voices and objecting to the plan.

“Members have a voice and can say this is wrong,” O’Bryan said. “They can say we are against what you’re doing here.”

PEF Field Representative Caitlin Janiszewski said these grievances are a vital component in fighting back against ITS’ plans, backing up what members have been telling ITS leadership all along that this is a huge blow to morale and an insult to the work members put in at the beginning of the pandemic, when they stepped up and worked 100-hour weeks. Members who have had to be on site to work the entire pandemic largely feel safe because there are not hundreds of other employees there, she said.

O’Bryan said supervisors he has spoken to agree with PEF members – there should be no hurry to return to worksites. Much of what ITS does is via remote access and can be done effectively from any location. Work product has not suffered while ITS staff was out of the office.

“We’ve created some pretty wild stuff and it all happened when we were working from home,” O’Bryan said. “Even at the office, a lot of our work is still working remotely. I’m doing the same job sitting at my desk as I am doing at home. The majority of people at ITS remote into servers. We don’t have to be sitting at our desk to do that.”

PEF leaders are also uneasy with the lack of criteria to determine whether it’s safe to move from the first phase on Aug. 31, at 25 percent staffing on a rotating basis, to phase 2, at 50 percent on a rotating basis. Grievance meetings have revealed ITS management had not received any direction on the issue, as of Sept. 2.

“Somebody is pushing this but it just doesn’t make any sense,” O’Bryan said. Janiszewski believes ITS executive management is calling the shots and they should be more concerned with ensuring safety than bringing everyone back to the office right now.

She asked about the process by which safety protocol violations get from the ground level supervisor up to the people making the decisions to move onto new phases, but ITS refused to discuss criteria or the decision-making process. Janiszewski said as members return to the workplace, they should report any safety protocol violation to management and copy or forward the notice to PEF so staff can keep a log of concerns for future discussions with management.

Increasing in-person density has backfired for colleges. SUNY Oneonta resumed in-person classes Aug. 24 and by Sept. 3, the college campus had 434 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the local department of health. The school has since moved to all-remote learning for the remainder of the fall semester.

PEF President Wayne Spence said what is happening at ITS is representative of a larger issue across state agencies and PEF will advocate for members to continue to be allowed to work from home.

“The state continues to urge social distancing, and some areas of the public sector remain banned, like arts and recreation,” he said. “We see no reason why the state should be unnecessarily exposing more people to each other via the workplace. There is no economic benefit, only risk, with this move.”