Labor employees show up to protest for more telework

Ahead of Labor's return-to-office decision, agency employees in Boston called for leaders to let them keep their telework options as flexible as possible.

This week’s Federal Report is being presented in four sections looking at how certain agencies are facing the impending May 5 deadline to have employees work in the office at least 50% of the time.

There’s an old saying that protestors used during the Vietnam war that went something like this, “fighting for peace is like [having sex] for virginity.”

Protesting at your office for the right to telework more captures those same vibes.

That is what happened in March when Labor Department employees in Boston went to their office to protest to retain their telework privileges.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rep. Scott Franklin (R-Fla.) called that decision by employees “hypocritical.”

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Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) seeks information from the Labor Department about a recent protest by employees who want to keep their telework privileges.

Ernst and Franklin wrote to Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su seeking more details about what the protest cost the department.

“Clearly, these employees know how much more effective they can be when they show up in person. We just wish they had the same level of dedication to serving Americans that they do to serving themselves,” the lawmakers wrote. “As White House Chief of Staff [Jeff] Zients said in January, agencies are still ‘not where they need to be’ on returning employees to the office. If your employees can show up to the office to protest, they can show up to the office to work.”

Ernst and Franklin want Su to respond to answers to three questions by April 10:

  • How much taxpayer-funded union time did representatives of AFGE Local 948 log with the Department of Labor (DOL) in the four weeks preceding their rally on March 19, 2024?
  • Were the DOL employees paid—either through taxpayer-funded union time reimbursements or otherwise—for their protest against returning to the office, which they staged at their office?
  • If so, what is the cost to the DOL including but not limited to labor and resources—of this protest?

Emails seeking comments about the lawmaker’s criticisms to David Gonzalez, the AFGE District 2 national vice president, which includes federal employees in Massachusetts, were not answered.

A Labor Department spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network, “The department continues to engage with our employee unions over the updated in-person work requirements with the goal of building a stronger sense of community in our department. We are committed to that process, and we support the First Amendment rights of all workers, including our own staff, to protest.”

Labor’s impending decision

Labor Department leadership and its union representatives have been in ongoing negotiations about return to the office plans since at least January. Labor initially wanted employees back in the office at least five days per two-week pay period starting Jan. 28. But Su delayed the implementation about a week before it was set to take effect citing ongoing labor-management discussions over the planned telework reduction.

For members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), Schedule C, managers and supervisors, they have been working in the office at least five days per pay period, since Oct. 23.

Su wrote to staff in a Feb. 9 email, which Federal News Network obtained, that the “department remains actively engaged in negotiations with our Unions. I will provide you with an update no later than April 5.”

This impending decision is likely why the employees in Boston held the protest.

Su wrote to employees in November, reminding them of their impending changes that will likely still apply later this month.

“For our employees impacted by this change, if you have a telework agreement that will need to be updated in TeleworkXpress to support the new in-person work requirement, please work with your supervisor to do so. If you don’t have a telework agreement on file, the expectation is that you are reporting in-person every workday unless you are on approved leave, official detail away from the agency worksite, or official travel. Keep in mind, management may recall DOL employees who participate in telework or remote work to work in-person on a temporary or permanent basis as needed to support mission and business needs,” she wrote on Nov. 28. “Further, all employees who participate in telework are expected to manage their work schedules to meet the in-person work requirement even if it means switching their in-person day(s) to a different day(s) during the pay period when they are approved to be on leave on what would have otherwise been an in-person day(s).”

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