"Talks are under way between administration officials and union representatives to iron out work-at-home conditions for employees unable to return to their offices."
Article published Sep 9, 2011
Double-pay concerns blocking state work
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — Concerns over labor contracts may have prolonged the idling of state workers whose Waterbury offices were rendered uninhabitable by flooding nearly two weeks ago.
Unionized employees have in some cases been barred from working from home — even if they want to. Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy said Thursday that the administration was reluctant to approve work-at-home arrangements until it had legal clarification around a provision in the union contract that guarantees workers double pay for working in “emergency” situations.
State workers displaced from their offices are still being paid.
“There were a number of questions that we had to assess before we were comfortable making certain decisions,” Duffy said. “I’ve now become more comfortable about how we’re defining an emergency, and whether or not double-pay would apply.”
Duffy said the decision helps pave the way for the return of state employees, some of whom may be asked to work from home.
“We’re in the process right now of going into a more full reassignment of work stations for people, and some of those could be home work stations,” Duffy said. “The union has some concerns, and we’re trying to work those out. But the reassignments will be happening.”
Talks are under way between administration officials and union representatives to iron out work-at-home conditions for employees unable to return to their offices.
“From the (Vermont State Employee Association’s) perspective, they want to make sure there are adequate protections for state employees so employees won’t be abused or put into precarious situations,” Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said Thursday.
The state office complex in Waterbury, which houses more than 1,500 state employees, won’t be inhabitable for months, if state officials even decide to rebuild there.
Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday said the state is on the verge of signing contracts that would provide temporary office space for hundreds of displaced Waterbury workers.
David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said mission-critical staff members have been assigned new workplaces — including their homes.
Mears though said he has yet to reassign non-critical workers, largely over double-time fears.
“There are people that could be working on longer-term environmental issues and permitting issues, just to keep the economy on track so people can continue to build and construct and run businesses and all that,” Mears said. “But I don’t want to incur the risk of paying double time. And it just sounded like there’s enough of uncertainty about it that we made the determination not to create that risk.”
Mears said he anticipated having most of those workers back to work within days in temporary office spaces.
Spaulding said there are a number of reasons that employees are being instructed not to work from home, including the state’s inability to coordinate their efforts in a useful way.
Asked whether more state employees would be working from home right now if the administration wasn’t worried about violating union contracts, Spaulding said “I don’t know the answer to that.”
“The people that want to work from home, we want them to be able to work from home if it’s appropriate,” Spaulding said.
The VSEA’s website lists a number of frequently asked questions, including:
“My office is closed and I am not an essential employee, but I want to work. May I come into the office and work, or come into the office and pick up some work to do at home?”
The answer: “No. Employees who are not specifically required to work by their supervisor are not authorized to do work from any location.”
Connor Casey, director of legislative affairs for the VSEA, said nobody is more frustrated than the employees themselves about not being able to work. Complicated labor issues need to be resolved, however, Casey said, before non-critical employees can transform their homes into offices.
For instance, Casey said, employees using home computers may suddenly expose their private lives to public-records requests. Casey said the union also needs to ensure that state employees aren’t forced to subsidize Internet connections or equipment purchases associated with work-at-home arrangements.
“We just to make sure people have rights when they’re working at home, that their privacy is protected, that they have the equipment they need to do the job,” he said. “And there’s a constitutional issue in that people can’t be forced to use private property for public purposes.”