Union is taking Department of Housing and Urban Development to arbitration over remote work

Another union is bringing a US federal agency through court proceedings over allegations that officials have restricted remote work opportunities for employees.

A council from the American Federation of Government Employees said it would seek arbitration over the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s denial of a national complaint about remote work.

According to that union complaint Filed on June 8, management barred broad groups of employees from remote work without “due consideration of employees’ duties, responsibilities and functions” after reaching an agreement in April. The department, which employs around 9,600 people, dismissed the complaint, saying staff were being granted “unprecedented workplace flexibilities” and the maximum authorized teleworking days, according to the Office of Human Resources Management.

“When the pandemic started, our entire workforce was working from home,” said Salvatore Viola, the president of Union Council 222. “They worked remotely and successfully carried on the agency’s mission.”

The bargaining unit covers around 5,000 employees.

According to union officials, while rolling out a system to field-process remote and telecommuting applications, the department preemptively sent out notices that certain employees were only approved for routine telecommuting, which means they had to report to an agency office at least twice in a pay period.

An email “There is nothing to prevent employees from making a request for a different flexiplace option (i.e. telecommuting, remote work) than that specified in the notification letter.”

According to the e-mail, the employees could then apply for a flexiplace arrangement. If it was determined that employees were ineligible for the option they requested, they would be given a reason for rejection, union officials said.

“It appears to be a management preference,” said Ricardo Miranda, the council’s chief steward.

“As agreed HUDs addition with AFGEeligibility for flexiplace arrangements — including remote work, mobile work, and telecommuting — “will be determined based on objective, fair policies and role-based criteria and must not be arbitrary and unpredictable,” a HUD spokesman said in an email.

The union collected sample motions as evidence of rejected motions, which lacked justifications for the decisions, although each motion had a designated blank section for explanation.

Some of the uses just cite previous findings by the department that a position was barred from full remote work. Others simply included a variation of the message, “Your position is not eligible for remote telecommuting.”

“The default exclusion of eligibility for remote work and eligibility for only routine remote work without a reason why employees cannot work remotely failed to address individual employee preferences and the specific position, duties and responsibilities of employees,” the complaint reads .

Viola said the ban from working remotely doesn’t take into account how re-entering creates commuting costs amid rising gas prices and hardships for employees who are caregivers.

in one written response to the complaint, The agency denied the allegation, saying most employees were approved for a flexiplace arrangement for either remote work or extended telework based on objective, equitable guidelines, function-based criteria and not for arbitrary and capricious reasons.

Ricardo and Viola say that while a 100% remote environment is inappropriate for every HUD employee, more employees than the agency has determined should be eligible for remote work. They said HUD staff are well-equipped to do so, given the success of remote work over the past 26 months.

How has hiring been affected by the pandemic?

During the pandemic, HUD hired more employees than it retired, a first in many years.

First, HUD rolled out as part of a nationwide teleworking requirement for its employees evacuation order on March 20, 2020.

Since then, a report issued by the HUD Office of Inspector General found that “most processes have been affected little or not at all by mandatory teleworking”.

Not surprisingly, the report found that processes that depended on physical paper records and access to facilities were the most disrupted, even though 91% of HUD employees were eligible to participate in telecommuting and 82% were already telecommuting in fiscal 2018 performed.

Flexible work, made possible by the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, predated the pandemic, Miranda said.

“With this existing remote working experience and capacity, HUD staff are maintaining a high level of service continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the audit noted. “Although staff encountered some difficulties and processes were impacted as noted above, in general the HUD was able to adapt quickly and continue to perform its essential functions.”

Nonetheless, the report’s findings still allow for re-entry into the office. It has been encouraged to prioritize plans to reopen offices to accommodate work processes that are canceled or suspended during teleworking.

OPM has also advised authorities to use teleworking where possible.

“Employees have continued to be able to meet the challenges of their jobs directly from locations other than their regular duty location, apart from their managers, supervisors and colleagues,” said OPM Director Kiran Ahuja in a Notebook 2021. “The agencies have shown that they have continued to be able to carry out their tasks effectively.”

Although job flexibility seems to have the green light at the top of the government, implementation by the authorities has not been so smooth.

“HUD management refuses to honor the President’s agenda to work in partnership with the labor movement to bring the federal government into the 21st century,” the union said in a press release. “HUD senior leadership prefers to manage based on employee presence in the office rather than focusing on productivity and reducing office space.”

“President Biden has asserted that we are partnering and that we are doing things as partners,” Viola said. “But in the meantime it’s not happening.”

Molly Weisner is a reporter for the Federal Times, where she covers industry issues related to the government workforce. She previously worked as a producer at USA Today and McClatchy, and as an editor at the New York Times Printing Office. Molly studied journalism and French at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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