Education’s return-to-office announcement ‘perplexing’ to union

At the Education Department, leaders are turning their attention to the return-to-office of bargaining unit employees — and receiving pushback for it.

This week’s Federal Report is being presented in four sections looking at how certain agencies are facing the pressure for employees to return to the office more often.

Just shortly after the Education Department increased return-to-office requirements for senior executives, managers, supervisors and non-bargaining unit employees, agency leaders are turning their attention to the in-person presence of bargaining unit employees.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced that all agency staff will have to work in person at least five days per pay period beginning May 20. That includes the 2,400 employees in the American Federation of Government Employees bargaining unit.

“Our return to greater in-person presence not only gives us more opportunity for collaboration, engagement and innovation, but it also brings us into alignment with other federal agencies across government that have been increasing their own in-person presence,” Cardona said in a March 28 all-staff email, obtained by Federal News Network.

Currently, most Education employees are either remote workers, or on a telework schedule that requires them to work in person just two days per pay period.

Sheria Smith, AFGE president for Local 252, which represents Education employees, called the return-to-office announcement “perplexing.” She said the union has not had the opportunity to negotiate or come to an agreement on the changes. Labor-management negotiations are opening in April for a few collective bargaining articles, but currently, telework is not on that list.

“We’re more productive in our work for citizens and it is more cost-effective for us to work at home,” Smith said in an interview. “What would they be sending us to the office for? And to do it … bypassing the union, without giving the union the opportunity to negotiate any change. They’re just sending it out as if it was already bargained and already settled.”

Considering the many return-to-office announcements from agencies, the union had expected to receive proposals on any telework changes when they were first outlining the parameters of the upcoming negotiations.

“For an issue that they know is important, that we’ve been unequivocal in representing how important that is to our colleagues, our coworkers [and] how people have made familial decisions — and for us to not even receive proposals on this before it was sent out to the bargaining unit employees is, in our view, outrageous,” Smith said.

Since Cardona’s email went out, AFGE has received at least 100 emails from employees concerned about the upcoming changes. The union has already notified a mediator at the Federal Labor Relations Authority regarding the return-to-office announcement.

Cardona, however, said in the email the changes would still be “subject to fulfilling bargaining obligations.” A department spokesperson added that the agency “looks forward to partnering with the union and engaging in productive bargaining discussions to support a smooth transition for covered employees.”

The return-to-office changes, as outlined in Cardona’s announcement, apply to those with telework agreements. They also apply to those who are considered telework-eligible, but who are currently working remotely. Any employees who live more than 50 miles from an agency facility and those who were hired with a fully remote job offer are exempt from the new policy.

In preparation for more time spent in the office, Cardona said the agency has adjusted office space arrangements, IT and other logistics. Moving forward, Cardona said all Education offices should also consider scheduling “core collaboration days,” or certain days when employees can coordinate to all work in person on the same day.

Education employees’ views of telework have hardly changed. During the Trump administration, the department previously cut back on telework. At the time, the vast majority of employees said the changes decreased productivity, required staff to use more sick leave and annual leave, and hurt agency morale to the point that many considered leaving the agency.

Since then, many employees were largely teleworking during the pandemic, and continued regularly working from home under an agreement established in 2021.

But now, “for whatever reason, they want us to have watercooler conversations that we, frankly, have been having over Teams,” Smith said. “But they want us in person.”

Discover more now:

Return to office in 4 parts: Fed facing the May 5 deadline

Lawmakers call SBA’s return to office policy ‘extremely minimal’

Census Bureau reconsidering remote work policy

Labor employees protest at their office for more telework riles up lawmakers

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories