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State worker unions sue Lamont over return to office order

July 9, 2021 GMT

State employee union leaders are suing to stop Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s order to have workers return to the office now that much of the state has emerged from the pandemic, accusing him of violating prior telework agreements reached with the unions and ignoring the benefits of having people work from home.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which filed the request for an injunction in Hartford Superior Court on Tuesday, said in a statement that state workers proved throughout the COVID-19 crisis that a flexible teleworking agreement could be beneficial to the state of Connecticut.

“From increased productivity and quality performance to the positive environmental impacts like reduced emissions, improved air quality and public health, the benefits of telework are clear and something that the Administration should be taking a proud step in leading,” SEBAC said in a statement posted on its website.

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In May, Lamont sent an email to state employees announcing they would be returning to their offices as of July 1 and that any telework would be limited to no more than 50% of their time, with manager approval.

“Agency heads will work to stagger teleworking schedules to keep the number of people in the office reduced to support distancing, but with low levels of community spread and use of masks in common areas or where distancing is not possible, we are confident it is safe to return to the office,” Lamont wrote in the email. He added how the state would “continue discussions with the unions in an effort to finalize the telework guidelines that contemplates the considerable experience gained during this challenging period.”

In its lawsuit, SEBAC maintains that Lamont “violated, ignored and effectively abrogated” the administration’s agreements with the unions by, among other things, forcing unionized employees to work an altered schedule while their application for telework was still pending and unilaterally denying telework applications for more than 50% without considering the merits of the request.

SEBAC estimates Lamont’s order affects about 10,000 state employees.

Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, said he could not comment on pending litigation. A SEBAC spokesperson said she also could not comment, referring reporters to the organization’s written statement posted online.

A judge on Thursday ordered a remote hearing be held Aug. 13 on the lawsuit.

While the unions representing Connecticut state employees were working before the pandemic on ways to allow some of their members to have flexible work-from-home schedules, many private sector companies are now grappling with the issue as offices are reopening. Companies like Amazon and automakers Ford and General Motors have promised to adopt a hybrid approach permanently for their office staff, responding to internal and public surveys showing an overwhelming preference for work-from-home options.