LINCOLN — Nebraska’s largest state employee union is challenging Gov. Jim Pillen’s order requiring state employees to return to working in their offices by Jan. 2.
The Nebraska Association of Public Employees, which represents more than 8,000 state employees, announced Tuesday that it had filed a formal “demand to bargain” over the issue.
The demand letter was sent Monday to the state’s chief negotiator, Dan Birdsall. Saying that time is of the essence, the letter asks the state to respond by Dec. 12.
“Some of our members have already begun applying for new jobs with outside employers because of their preference to work remotely,” the letter said. “We are already critically short staffed in many areas, and we cannot afford to lose a single one of our public servants right now. If we do, all Nebraskans pay the price.”
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The union letter followed a Nov. 13 directive from the governor requiring state employees to work in their offices from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Pillen said he issued the order after a survey of state agencies found many employees working from home. The surveys showed that at least 20% of 12,494 full-time equivalent employees are working full-time remotely or working hybrid schedules, in which they spend some days in the office and some days at home.
The governor said he doesn’t believe in working from home, calling it a “commonsense expectation” that people are most productive when they are working together in the office, where they can communicate face to face and build workplace culture and engagement.
Pillen said Nebraska has an obligation to deliver services in a way that uses tax dollars most responsibly. However, he did not offer evidence to show that productivity has suffered from employees working from home or elsewhere or that service to taxpayers has deteriorated.
Justin Hubly, executive director of the employees union, said Tuesday that state employees working remotely provide vital services to Nebraska and “work tirelessly to deliver those services. Remote work assignments, where appropriate, are beneficial to both the taxpayer and the employees.
“Our top priority is ensuring that we can continue to provide effective and efficient services to our fellow Nebraskans, while also respecting the rights of our members, our contract, and the law,” he said. “We must do everything in our power to ensure the state is able to retain its current workforce and attract a new generation of public servants for the future.”
The demand to bargain letter said the terms and conditions of employment are mandatory subjects of bargaining under the State Employees Collective Bargaining Act and the Industrial Relations Act, as well as the current labor contract.
But Birdsall disputed whether the contract requires bargaining over the issue of remote work.
In a statement, he said that the state has “discretion over the determination as to work locations and schedules” and that agencies have been directed to make preparations to carry out the governor’s executive order.
Pillen’s order provides for some exceptions to be authorized by agency heads. Those exceptions include employees whose assigned work hours fall outside the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday schedule and situations in which office space is unavailable without additional cost.
Exceptions also can be made for employees who move away from their original office location and no reasonable in-office arrangement is possible, as long as the employee remains in Nebraska.
In addition, exceptions can be made to “sustain critical operations in a business area with a workforce shortfall.” The last exception is subject to the governor’s approval.
The surveys of code agencies, meaning those under the governor’s control, showed that half or more of the employees in some agencies are working full- or part-time remotely. Some agencies reported they had reduced their office space by having some employees work remotely. Some have had telework policies in place well before the practice expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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