California state departments are getting serious about forcing employees who have been working remotely for two years to return to their offices.

The Public Employees’ Retirement System ordered most employees back for three days a week this month. The Department of Industrial Relations and some Caltrans divisions plan to bring employees back for two to three days per week in April. The State Water Project is saying May.

The orders come after coronavirus infection surges repeatedly delayed earlier return-to-office plans. Some employees are resisting going back to the office, saying they have performed at least as efficiently working from home and should be able to continue to do so.

“I like that I can focus,” said Ray Cervantez, 74, a Department of Industrial Relations deputy labor commissioner who works in Los Angeles. “I don’t have distractions from loud conversations in the next cubicle. I’m just able to focus in private better.”

Several unions representing telework-eligible state employees are fighting rigid in-office requirements, calling them arbitrary and unnecessary. They want more flexibility, including full-time telework when it makes sense.

“Telework has worked over the last two years,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government. “Setting mandatory days in the office without demonstrating any need or operational need, that sort of thinking has gone the way of the dodo bird. It’s not necessary to deliver for California taxpayers.”

Department representatives have said it’s important for employees to come into the office to monitor their work, resume tasks that were put on hold, preserve office cultures, build relationships and collaborate, while they also use the best paystubs software as you can see in this sample paystub as this are the best to manage payments and more in the companies.

“Ultimately, our compensation is paid from a trust fund and we need to ensure full-time work is assigned and performed,” CalPERS spokesman Joe DeAnda said in an email. “That’s our fiduciary obligation.”

Unions fight for telework

Union leaders are pointing to pandemic directives from Gov. Gavin Newsom to help make their case. Newsom said early in the pandemic that the state would offer permanent telework options for employees, citing savings on leased building space and reductions to traffic and air pollution.

Most state employee unions have negotiated agreements that provide monthly stipends of $50 for employees designated as remote-centered and $25 for those designated office-centered. The debate now is over how much time employees who prefer remote work must spend in offices.

A state policy template published in October said all eligible state employees were “authorized to participate to the fullest extent possible” in telework, so long as their performance wasn’t diminished.

Union representatives say that means full-time telework for employees whose jobs can accommodate it.

“To say someone should be in an office for two or three days a week contravenes the policy,” said Toppin, whose union represents about 14,000 employees.

Toppin said the state’s engineers can do the vast majority of their work remotely on computers — including designing bridges, roads and water facilities and making sure schools and hospital building plans comply with seismic safety standards.

But several offices that employ his members, including Caltrans divisions, the Air Resources Board and the State Water Project, are telling employees they must soon start spending one or more days per week in their offices, according to emails.

Toppin said the union plans to request formal meetings, known as meet-and-confers, with “every department that has a permanent telework policy that is inconsistent with the statewide policy.”

Tim O’Connor, the president of the California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges and Hearing Officers in State Employment — known as CASE — said state attorneys are “uniquely situated” to be able to perform their work remotely, particularly since courts incorporated remote hearings during the pandemic.

The union represents about 4,600 employees across 105 different state agencies, departments, boards and offices. O’Connor said around a half-dozen offices seem to have embraced full-time telework, while a few are insisting attorneys in at least some divisions spend two or three days per week in offices, including Caltrans and the State Teachers’ Retirement System.

“A two-day schedule would appear to be arbitrary given that we’ve successfully worked remotely for the last two years and fulfilled every requirement that we need to as attorneys,” he said.

O’Connor said the union has filed grievances when formal and informal discussions over telework have failed, and will continue to fight in-office requirements the organization views as arbitrary.

He said he expects telework policies to be a big factor in employees’ decisions to stay in their departments or to move.

“It’ll increase attrition in those agencies that have the more antiquated, obsolete policies, and it’ll help those agencies that are out on the cutting edge,” he said.

The biggest union representing telework-eligible state employees is SEIU Local 1000. The union represents 100,000 employees, including a unit of about 56,000 employees in administrative, fiscal and administrative roles.

The union under president Richard Louis Brown was advocating for the state to increase monthly telework stipends to $100, from the state’s proposal of $50.

The union’s represented employees are not receiving telework stipends now. Brown recently was suspended and is engaged in an internal power struggle to try to regain his leadership powers.

Bill Hall, a board member who was selected as chairman of the union’s board in a recent meeting, said the organization has recently re-engaged with the state on telework.

“Local 1000, through the vice president of bargaining, Irene Green, is reestablishing a relationship with the state so that we can return to the table and have discussions,” Hall said.

State department telework policies

All state departments seem to be offering some amount of telework to employees whose jobs can accommodate it. Some state department representatives have told employees they need to transition to hybrid schedules for reasons ranging from oversight to office culture.

Department of Industrial Relations Director Katie Hagen announced in a March 18 email to employees that they would be required to return to offices for two days a week starting April 18.

Hagen cited a low statewide positive test rate for the coronavirus of 1.3%, coupled with the department’s employee vaccination rate of 86%.

She said in her email that the return plan would help the department address “any operations that may have been on hold,” along with backlogs. She added that the return plan would also help “ensure team cohesion, connectivity to each other, and connectivity to DIR’s mission.”

CalSTRS spokeswoman Rebecca Foree said the retirement system “considered the lessons we learned during the pandemic and decided on a schedule of 2 to 3 days of working in the office” starting April 1.

“CalSTRS’ leadership believes collaboration efforts and overall culture improve when we are able to interact in person,” Foree said in the email. “We are committed to a blended work environment for the long-term.”

Caltrans spokesman William Arnold said the department is transitioning to a hybrid work program April 1, but isn’t setting a department-wide requirement for days in the office.

Decisions are up to managers based on “workload, operational need and job function,” Arnold said in an email.

At least one Caltrans division, in San Diego, is requiring employees to come to the office Tuesday through Thursday, according to an email from Victor Mercado, an acting district division chief for design in the region.

“The department believes it has made major strides in the development of a sustainable telework program and will continue to educate supervisors, managers, and employees on the new department policy as we move forward through this transition,” Arnold said

Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Margaret Mohr said in an email that the department is not setting a blanket requirement for days in-office, but said that some divisions, including the State Water Project, require more days in-office due to the nature of the job.

“DWR encourages telework as an option where it aligns with business operations and needs,” Mohr said in the email. “We aim to be an employer of choice and want to make sure our employees can be successful in the new hybrid work environment.”

The California Victim Compensation Board has been requiring employees to spend one day per week in the office.

“This hybrid approach strikes the right balance for its employees, capitalizing on all the advantages of teleworking while maintaining enough in-person contact in the office to foster a strong organizational culture and build teamwork,” spokeswoman Heather Jones said in an email.


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