State hits some snags in working from home

Unions give Baker administration a mixed grade

A LONG-TIME HEALTH CARE administrator working at North Shore Community College is over 60, putting her in a vulnerable category for COVID-19. But as of last week, she was still required to report to work or use up her vacation and personal time to stay home, her daughter said.

A Registry of Motor Vehicles employee who works in an office and was designated essential couldn’t work remotely because he needs to access people’s personal information, and the state didn’t have a VPN connection to allow him to do that securely. The man is recovering from an illness that makes him high-risk so he has been using sick time to stay home, but he would rather work remotely, his wife said.

There have also been instances where non-essential employees over 60 have been allowed to work from home part of the week and inexplicably told to come in to work the rest of the week. If they refuse, their only option is to stay at home using sick or vacation time.

As state officials are advising non-essential workers to stay home, the state itself is working out the kinks in its own telework policies. As a major employer – state government, including higher education, supports around 86,000 jobs – the Massachusetts executive branch is just like every other employer, developing telework policies quickly. Government is getting a mixed grade from the unions that employ state workers. Some unions say state officials have been responsive in addressing their concerns, while others say they are still looking for modifications to accommodate individual needs.

Patrick Marvin, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, said, “The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to protecting the health and safety of its workforce during the COVID-19 outbreak, while also continuing to provide essential government services for the people of the Commonwealth.”

The official state policy, which took effect March 18 and was extended until May 4 on Tuesday, is that non-emergency executive branch employees who can work remotely should do so. As of last week, 14,000 employees – over one-third of the executive branch workforce – were teleworking. The state has expedited its effort to update employees’ laptops and software, and the information technology branch has been working to improve capabilities for video and phone conferencing.

Many offices that used to accept public visits are closed to the public, ranging from some registries of motor vehicles to offices that process public benefits.

Under the policy, employees performing core functions that need to be done at a workplace are required to show up, and social distancing measures will be put in place. The state has been cleaning buildings and surfaces and ensuring bathrooms are stocked with soap.

Employees who are not performing core functions but who cannot perform their job remotely are supposed to be given alternate work assignments, as the state pursues technology that lets more people work remotely.

Employees are being told not to report to work while sick, and the state developed a program to advance sick leave or vacation leave to employees who get sick but do not have accrued time off.

Practically, implementing the policy involves myriad departments bargaining personnel policies with different unions.

Peter MacKinnon, president of SEIU509, which represents human service workers and educators, said by and large people who are able to telework have been allowed to do so. Some people obviously cannot work remotely – for example, if they work at a hospital or correctional facility.

But there remains a problem that some employees cannot work remotely because the state does not have enough equipment, like laptops or VPN licenses.

“The problem is the Commonwealth is so behind on its technology that most jobs that should easily be able to let people telework, they don’t have equipment to do it,” MacKinnon said. For example, he said, workers processing welfare or unemployment benefits or MassHealth enrollments should be able to do so remotely, but they do not always have the technology to log into the state system.

The union argues that healthy employees who cannot report to work for a reason related to COVID-19 – for example, they are quarantined or have to care for a child – should be put on paid administrative leave, and should not have to use up accrued time off. The state has not agreed to that.

“These are people who want to work and otherwise would be able to work, but through no fault of their own they can’t during this unique time,” MacKinnon said.

The Boston Carmen’s Union is in similar negotiations with the MBTA, but the two sides declined to comment while the talks are ongoing.

HIGH RISK PEOPLE FORCED TO COME TO OFFICE

In public education, decisions are often made at a campus level.

Margaret Wong, president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, said some colleges, like Cape Cod Community College, worked hard to move everything to remote work as quickly as possible. Others moved more slowly.

“Some people who are in the hig- risk age group or with compromised immune systems reached out to me in great panic about why, even though they can do their work remotely, they weren’t being permitted to do it remotely,” Wong said. Employees were told if they stayed home without being sick, they would have to use personal or vacation time.

The union has been pushing for paid administrative leave for anyone who cannot do their job remotely. “We’re talking about a pandemic, we’re talking about something that’s deadly,” Wong said. “Playing with people lives is just not what an employer can be doing.”

When the governor ordered all non-essential businesses closed, Wong said, college presidents had moved almost all work online. But she said it took time for every college to get on board – as of last week, there were still colleges insisting that an academic or financial aid adviser had to meet with students in person. North Shore Community College only last week obtained the VPN codes necessary for employees to log in to secure systems remotely, after an order placed in March was delayed by the vendor.

“Really, it was only a few colleges that just felt the human touch was still necessary, and it was hard for us to just get that mindset to change, that during a deadly pandemic the human touch is not what we should be encouraging,” Wong said.

Several union leaders say the state has been responsive. David Holway, national president of the National Association of Government Employees, said his union is working through some problems, like alleviating long lines at Registry of Motor Vehicle offices and determining whether more administrators at the Department of Correction can work from home.

But Holway said the state has done a good job communicating with the union and working to resolve problems. “The administration is addressing the concerns we raised one at a time and doing a good job when we have a legitimate complaint to straighten it out,” Holway said.

Holway said the state has purchased thousands of new computers to let people work from home. State officials have worked with the union on a case-by-case basis to address individual employees’ concerns. “They really have come leaps and bounds in providing technology to members so they can work from home,” Holway said.

Patrick Russell, vice president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, which represents a number of essential employees, like microbiologists and epidemiologists, who are involved in the COVID-19 response, said agencies are accommodating people who want to work from home. “They don’t want people that are immunocompromised or in some risk category reporting to work,” Russell said. “If they can work from home and be productive then they’re being allowed to work from home.”

Jim Durkin, legislative director for AFSCME, said most of its workers are needed on the job, to staff health or correctional facilities, although the state has allowed employees who are not required at worksites to work remotely. Durkin said workers affected by the virus can use sick leave or an extended leave bank. The union is also asking the Legislature to establish a separate sick leave bank for virus-related leave.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

“It’s one of the reasons we fight so hard to protect our members’ sick leave benefits and paid leave time,” Durkin said.

Clarification: After publication, a spokeswoman for North Shore Community College said their policy would have allowed a staff member to stay home with pay without using accrued leave.