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Arbitrator says social workers can telecommute through December

Gov. Ned Lamont, addressing a union rally as a candidate in 2018, has bumped heads with labor over telecommuting rules during the pandemic.
Gov. Ned Lamont, addressing a union rally as a candidate in 2018, has bumped heads with labor over telecommuting rules during the pandemic.

Hundreds of state social workers will be able to telework about 70% of the time through the end of December under a labor facilitator’s ruling released Friday.

The binding decision resolves five months of tension between Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration and state government’s largest labor union, Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Arbitrator Michael R. Ricci’s decision, which takes effect immediately, applies to roughly 600 staff assigned largely to the Social Services department’s field offices. The administration and the unions will re-assess working conditions again in early 2022.

Representatives for those workers had filed unfair labor practice complaints against the department, arguing that Commissioner Deidre Gifford failed to follow a July 30 agreement reached between the union and the administration in an attempt to resolve the work-from-home issue.

“Our members are trained and skilled professionals who are dedicated to fulfilling our agency’s mission,” said Jay Bartolomei, an eligibility services supervisor at DSS and president of AFSCME Local 714, one of two bargaining units within Council 4 impacted by the ruling. “I can’t speak to what motivated the commissioner and her senior management team to disrupt our work and our well-being by ignoring the telework agreement. I can say that our members will appreciate an arbitrator’s decision reaffirming that the telework agreement is fair, reasonable and helpful both to employees and the clients we serve.”

Department of Social Services spokesman David Dearborn said Friday the agency was reviewing the ruling but did not comment further.

Neither the union nor the department got everything it sought in the decision.

Shortly after the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, Lamont ordered most state employees who could perform their jobs from home to do so most of the time.

A temporary agreement between management and unions allowed many employees to work from home as much as 80% of the time.

In mid-May of 2021, Lamont sent most state employees an email warning many would be transitioning back to more in-person work that summer.

More negotiations produced a stipulated agreement on July 30 that called for a 60-day “reset period.” Essentially that meant during August and September, workers could follow the same rules that they had been prior to July — provided there was no significant change in their respective agencies’ services or responsibilities.

Once the “reset period” had ended, in early October, management and labor would re-evaluate and set new limits.

But many social workers said they were being pressed to work at least 50% of the time in the office, even though there had been no substantive change in their duties.

More than 600 AFSCME members signed a petition charging that the Social Services department was not adhering to the July 30 agreement and multiple unfair labor practice charges were filed.

Lamont’s relationship with all state employee unions has been somewhat tense throughout his nearly three years in office.

The governor has been very vocal in his plans to shrink the state’s workforce through attrition, arguing he can both save money and — by taking advantage of technological advances — make services more efficient.

Following a directive from the General Assembly, Lamont hired the Boston Consulting Group in September 2020 to craft a plan to take advantage of projected surge in state employee retirements in 2022 and 2023.

The firm issued a report in March estimating that state government, over several years, could reduce annual operating costs by as much as $900 million through various efficiency initiatives.

But union leaders say the plan is misguided and will harm public services while losing the state money in the long run.

They also argue that after a decade that saw significant erosion in the state’s workforce, many agencies are badly understaffed.

Between 2011 and 2018, as Connecticut struggled to recover from The Great Recession, then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature reduced the Executive Branch workforce by more than 10%.

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