South Bay union fighting for telework won’t let its employees work from home
SEIU members at a 2019 demonstration. File photo.

A California union is fighting with its employees over a proposed teleworking policy—a tricky position for Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521, which has advocated for teleworking for its members.

Members of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 9423 and Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 29 are demanding their employer, SEIU, agree to a longterm remote work policy. Members of the two locals were forced to return to their offices on Nov. 15, according to a petition circulated in November. There are approximately 80 employees represented between the two locals. The members work in office support staff positions and are employees of SEIU.

Robert Hogue, lead bargainer for CWA 9423, told San José Spotlight negotiations with SEIU are ongoing.

“Unfortunately, SEIU has failed to put substantive action behind their claims of ‘being open to a remote work policy,’” Hogue said. “It has been very frustrating dealing with an employer that has insisted upon a course of action that potentially puts our members’ health and safety at risk.”

Riko Mendez, SEIU Local 521 chief elected officer, told San José Spotlight the union is meeting in good faith and has agreed to work with CWA 9423 and OPEIU 29 to create a long-term teleworking policy.

“We also recognize that in-person collaborations are critical to supporting the work of the thousands of members we represent and our staff in building a strong union,” Mendez said.

A representative for OPEIU’s bargaining team declined comment, citing pending negotiations.

In two petitions circulated several weeks ago, CWA and OPEIU members said they’re proposing a hybrid telework model where staff goes into the field while meetings are conducted via Zoom. Members would rotate to keep the union offices open. It notes many CWA and OPEIU members cannot afford to live in the Bay Area, so they have to commute long hours to report in person to SEIU offices. It also claims SEIU has failed to establish clear policy or protocols to mitigate exposure to COVID-19.

“Put safety first and respect all workers’ voices and concerns as we are amid a pandemic,” the petition states.

Hogue said since workers returned to their offices on Nov. 15, some members of his bargaining unit have been exposed to COVID-19.

“The thing is, we’re not pre-pandemic, we’re not even post-pandemic—we’re mid-pandemic,” Hogue said, adding it’s interesting to struggle for teleworking with an employer who has fought to have the same kind of policy established for its own members.

The situation raises questions of hypocrisy since SEIU 521 has fought for its members to continue teleworking but won’t let its employees do the same.

SEIU 521 has pushed to implement teleworking policies in at least one local government office.

After Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone tried to bring workers into the office on rotation, SEIU members submitted a petition to the Board of Supervisors accusing Stone of jeopardizing the health of workers and the public. The county decided workers could continue telecommuting. This summer, Stone was able to bring workers back to the office, although some employees claim he rushed the return, citing an outbreak of COVID infections.

Stone told San José Spotlight he thinks it’s ironic SEIU isn’t practicing what it preaches.

“SEIU has been very critical of me, the assessor, as well as the office, regarding our teleworking policy,” Stone said. “It’s curious that the very people expressing their concern and their criticism… are having the same problem in their labor organization.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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