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Telecommuting issues continue to vex PEF

By SHERRY HALBROOK

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread nationwide, and after more than 18 months conducting state business remotely, you might expect the state to be working effectively with PEF to continue and expand telecommuting.  It’s not.

PEF President Wayne Spence vented his frustration to the union’s Executive Board at its meeting in late August.

Telecommuting is still one of the top issues PEF is trying to resolve with the state, Spence told the board.  State agencies were supposed to work with PEF via their joint labor-management committees in August to draft and implement new telecommuting plans that comport with telecommuting provisions in the new PS&T contract.  These new plans were to take effect when emergency plans from last year expired, and then continue for the remainder of the current calendar year.  At that point, permanent agency telecommuting plans should be adopted in collaboration with PEF.

The degree to which PEF was allowed to influence the interim agency plans varied widely.  The agencies submitted these plans to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations (GOER) and in many cases it made significant changes to them.

“Not one of them (represents) the agreement with PEF, not one of them!” Spence told the PEF board members. “They are either unilateral or GOER gutted it.

“I’ve demanded an executive level meeting with GOER” to discuss this, Spence said.  “I thought it was supposed to be a locally developed policy, but now it’s ‘take-it-or-leave-it.’”

Meanwhile, GOER sent out a confusing memo September 3 to all agency directors of human resources saying: “COVID-19 specific accommodations were set to expire and agencies were expected to return to pre-pandemic, in-person workplace presence on September 7, 2021. This date is now extended until October 12, 2021.” The governor’s office then clarified that memo with another one on September 10 that stated: “The intent of the September 3, 2021 memorandum was not to stop or otherwise deter the implementation of agency-specific approved telecommuting plans. Rather, it was to encourage the continued efforts underway to return State employees to safe working environments while also extending the aforementioned flexibility afford to the agencies and employees through the application of authorized COVID-19 specific accommodations through October 12.” You can read the full memo here.

So, despite assurances at the bargaining table that agencies would have full discretion to develop telecommuting policies with PEF and determine the scope of telecommuting, GOER has unilaterally imposed statewide limitations on telecommuting. PEF believes that agencies and the unions who represent the employees who work there are best positioned to develop a robust, successful telecommuting program consistent with their collective bargaining agreements.

PEF members have proven that in many cases telecommuting works.  New York should lead the way with a robust telecommuting program to avoid future public health crises. Members have delivered the critical services New Yorkers need throughout the pandemic, yet some agency leaders continue to make decisions reminiscent of the Cuomo administration’s dysfunction.