Two years after a pandemic-stricken state sent its office employees to work from home, Wednesday brought the full-staff return at the
Department of Transportation, one of the largest Connecticut agencies.Work From Home in Marathi
It was dubbed the first “All Hands Wednesday,” a weekly event. Hundreds, perhaps more than 1,000 people came together at the DOT
headquarters in Newington — planners, designers, inspectors and more — connecting with old friends and colleagues on a sunny, pre-spring day.
Parking lots filled.
But the moment also signaled dark clouds of discord as the issue of telework — who can work from home, and how often — hung, for many,
over the reunion. Like all state executive branch units, the DOT is now operating under the ruling of an arbitrator who rejected Gov. Ned
Lamont’s plan to set caps on how much time unionized employees can spend working remotely.
As the tens of thousands of state employees return to “normal,” how many will request and win telework, for what percentage of their time?
No one can say.
The new rules, negotiated under the state’s 2017 labor agreement, give a roadmap that says agencies can require workers to spend at least
one day a week in the office. Beyond that, it’s a judgment call based on “the efficiency and productivity of the employee or the work group.”
And it appears to favor state workers exercising their telework rights.
Two facts seem clear: First, state agencies will see more telework than many commissioners and department heads would have preferred,
perhaps a lot more.
Some commissioners are privately grumbling, and worrying. It’s happening as thousands of state employees from the core of the old office
culture prepare to retire in the next few weeks to avoid a change in pension rules — leaving a workforce more focused on remote work.
And second, we will see some royal battles over state employee telework rights until this shakes out.
It’s all part of the great reimagining of work that’s happening across America in the wake of a pandemic that pointed the way toward a
universal online office workplace, in an economy where scarce employees call the shots, led by a millennial generation not playing the old game.
State trends can be a benchmark for the private sector. But the difference is that public officials can’t dictate the rules; that happens though bargaining and arbitration.
It is not shaping up to be clean and neat.
Union accuses DOT of violations
I spoke with Travis Woodward, president of one of the largest state bargaining units with thousands of state employees including more than
400 DOT engineers. He said Commissioner Joseph Giulietti had set a maximum of 50 percent telework for DOT employees.
“That’s not in line with the arbitration award that we got for the final agreement,” said Woodward, president of the Connecticut State
Employees Association SEIU Local 2001, and himself a supervising engineer at DOT. “A lot of people feel side-winded about the
In the arbitration award, issued Dec. 27, the union coalition agreed not to object if agencies required at least one day a week, or 20 percent,
in the office. With that as a standard, the arbitrator specifically rejected the state’s plan to allow agency heads to set lower caps on telework time for the units they lead.
The arbitrator, Michael R. Ricci, sided with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC), whose proposal said, “An employee
may request telework schedules of any amount the individual employee believes to be consistent with job duties and operational needs.”
DOT is not violating that, spokeswoman Kafi Rouse said in an emailed response late Wednesday. “CTDOT does not have a policy capping
telework for employees and has never mandated a certain amount of telework. The DOT continues to be in accordance with state law while ensuring the operational needs of the agency are met.”
Cap or none, DOT under Giulietti values interactions in-person, in the office.
“Succession planning, team cohesion, and culture building are the goals of ‘All Hands Wednesday’ and we were able to observe this taking place,” Rouse said.
Giulietti outlined his goals in a Feb. 22 letter to DOT employees and a 20-page telework policy.
“Going forward at the DOT, we will build a hybrid working environment: taking the best of the former all-staff, in-person structure and
combining it with the new at-home workspace we created over the past two years,” the commissioner said in his letter.
“Working together in a community environment will improve our collaboration and provide the in-person interactions that we’ve been
missing….Of course, we want to keep some of the work-life balance that working at home has offered.
“I hope you will agree that this is the best of both worlds.”
‘No reason…to show up in the office’
I do agree with Giulietti. As a columnist and editor, I worked under a hybrid arrangement for five years before COVID — at Hearst and
previously the Hartford Courant. Spontaneous interaction does matter in the world of ideas, though apparently I’m too loud for them to let me work in-house all week.
Woodward, the DOT supervising engineer and union president, spends much of his time on highway construction sites. He said he, too,
prefers a flexible arrangement with some time in the office and some working remotely.
Trouble is, many state employees do not agree. And the new state rules might favor them regardless of what well-meaning managers such as
Giulietti prefer. To reject a bid for telework, management must show “material negative impact on service delivery to internal or external
customers, clients, consumers or the general public.”
Take rank-and-file DOT engineers, for example. “There’s no reason why they would need to show up in the office at all,” Woodward said. “We
have team meetings over Microsoft Teams and we meet regularly at least once a week and we share ideas that way…Between Teams, texting
and phones you’re only an electronic device away.”
No one needs to worry about productivity, he said, because the work product is easily measurable.
“We’re going to file grievances,” Woodward added — hundreds of them if necessary.
‘A PhD in telework’
Multiply that across the state and we could be looking at a mess, not to mention, if Giulietti is right, a lot of lost opportunities.
None of this is directly related to the negotiations just completed between Lamont’s office and SEBAC for new, 3-year contracts, which are
now subject to ratification votes. Rather, it stems from the 2017 SEBAC contract under former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
That agreement, good through 2027, said telework is a bargainable right with limits, and it called for the state and SEBAC to come up with a
telework policy. By 2019, an interim policy took shape but with key issues in dispute as Lamont’s negotiators looked for the sort of balance Giulietti described.
Then the coronavirus crisis hit and suddenly, everyone not on the front lines with clients was working remotely. The pandemic, Ricci said in
his arbitration ruling, “has served as a PhD in telework for the parties.”
He added, “At times, the parties’ briefs are love songs to telework. However, where the parties differ, is the degree of telework.”
And that’s the rub. Lamont spokesman Max Reiss, continuing the love song, said the administration has embraced technology, telework and
a different view of how offices should run.
Woodward likens telework to flexible work hours, which took a few years for state managers to accept after that innovation launched in 2008.
“Once everybody looks at the spirit of the agreement, 80 percent is where we’ll schedule,” Woodward said — meaning 4 out of 5 days remote
for state employees who can do it.
Even with our new PhD’s, that’s a scary prospect.