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Virus Is Forcing Telework, Something Not in Union Contracts (1)

March 16, 2020, 6:49 PMUpdated: March 16, 2020, 10:07 PM

As the new coronavirus forces businesses to shut down offices and employees to work remotely, unions and management are dealing with work arrangements that are largely unaddressed in collective bargaining agreements.

About 3.9% of union contracts over the past five years mention “telecommuting,” “telework,” or “work from home,” according to an analysis of more than 4,300 documents in Bloomberg Law’s online library of collective bargaining agreements.

The lack of contract language suggests employers may be implementing widespread telework policies in office cultures lacking substantial previous experience with remote work. Employers across the country, from Capital One to Microsoft to the federal government, have told their workers to log on from home as cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, multiply.

“Working from home is still a novel concept for most bargaining units,” Bloomberg Law analyst Robert Combs said. “Unionized employers are good at finding creative ways to keep workers working on site, or at multiple or shifting sites. But allowing employees to stay off the physical grid completely is a control-shifting strategy that many companies are not ready to embrace yet.”

In a separate survey, about 15% of employers said they had language in their union contracts that addresses “flexible work scheduling,” according to Bloomberg Law’s Employer Bargaining Objectives Report, 2020. The soon-to-be-released survey asked 130 employers about bargaining goals in the year ahead.

Flexible work scheduling could include telework or other policies such as variable work hours and job-sharing. So the percentage of employers that actually have telework provisions in their contracts is likely smaller than 15%, according to Combs.

What Contracts Say

“Telecommute” was the most common phrase used to describe flexible work arrangements in Bloomberg Law’s contract database. A total of 118 contracts mentioned the words “telecommute” or “telecommuting” over the past five years. That number accounts for about 2.7% of the 4,353 contracts in the date range. About 1.4% of contracts mentioned “work from home” and 0.96% mentioned “telework.”

Many of the labor agreements featuring such provisions were in the public sector, covering state and local government employees.

The Service Employees International Union’s contracts had the largest number mentioning alternative work arrangements. Twenty-eight SEIU contracts mentioned “telecommuting,” while eight mentioned “telework” and four mentioned “work from home.”

The Communications Workers of America and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees also had a number of contracts mentioning a variation of telework.

Some contracts even included language on training workers to work remotely, likely making a transition to remote work more feasible during the Covid-19 outbreak.

A labor agreement between the county of Santa Clara in California and SEIU Local 521, for example, says the county should not only maintain a teleworking program but also “provide training for supervisors and workers who meet the criteria for participating in the program.”

More Focus on Telework?

The necessity of working remotely during the pandemic could lead to a greater focus on flexible work arrangements in future collective bargaining agreements.

Workers, especially hourly employees, who were unable to secure telework opportunities in the past may now get a chance to prove its feasibility to management, according to Office and Professional Employees International Union Bargaining Coordinator Sandy Pope. OPEIU represents more than 110,000 workers across the country.

“I’m actually hoping that this will have a positive effect where they’ll be able to see that it is possible to have hourly employees work from home,” Pope said. “I mean, there’s plenty of ways to keep track of peoples’ work.”

Already, unions have been vocal about increasing telework options and boosting the amount of sick leave available to workers, especially in the federal government. On Monday, 27 Democratic U.S. senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging more telework options for federal workers.

About 5% of respondents to the Employer Bargaining Objectives survey said that when they renegotiate contracts in 2020, they plan to add a flexible work arrangement clause or expand current offerings. Only 1% said they plan to either remove or scale down their existing arrangements.

“So this is a trend that was growing even before this current crisis started,” Combs said.

(Updated with additional reporting.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Wallender in Washington at awallender@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com

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