Seattle city employees who have become accustomed to working from home during the pandemic are threatening to quit in the face of a proposed hybrid work policy that would require them to return to the office at least two days a week.
Although the more restrictive work-from-home job policy announced by Mayor Bruce Harrell in June is comparable to what many private sector employers have announced, concerns about long commutes, exposure to security risks downtown, and the risks of bringing COVID-19 home from the office may be enough for some city staff to seek other work from home jobs.
A recent poll by PROTEC17, a union representing the City of Seattle employees, found that 23% of respondents are “considering separating from city employment due to return-to-office plans” and another 31% said they “wouldn’t rule out the possibility,” according to the Seattle Times.
Harrell argued in a June 13 email to employees that in-person work is “key to enhancing the collaboration, communication, and relationship-building that will allow us to build One Seattle.” Harrell spokesperson Jamie Housen told the Seattle Times on July 14 that the more limited hybrid work policy “is primarily focused on ensuring the city provides the highest quality of services and support to its residents.”
But a number of city employees argue that the fully remote work model is just as productive as its pre-pandemic, in-person predecessor and see Harrell’s proposal as a way to bring them back downtown “so they can walk down the street during their lunch hour and buy a sandwich,” Karen Estevenin, executive director of PROTEC17, told the Seattle Times. Many of the workers feel that Harrell’s proposal is at least partially driven by Seattle business leaders, many of whom are reeling from the drastic reduction of foot traffic downtown due to the pandemic.
Estevenin and other union officials representing Seattle city workers are pushing Harrell to swap his “one-size-fits-all” requirement of at least two days in the office per week for continuing to set remote work arrangements on a case-by-case basis. The existing work-from-home job policy has been “working exceptionally” by allowing employees and managers to figure out how to “move the work forward with the mutual partnership,” Estevenin said.
Timothy Emery, the managing partner at Emery Reddy, told the Seattle Times that it’s not clear whether union members can successfully challenge the city’s legal right to set conditions of work, “unless there’s a very specific provision in the [union’s] collective bargaining agreement that prevents that from occurring.”
However, given Seattle’s tight labor market, Emery said union members may still have more leverage. “It’s pretty obvious that if you don’t make this group of people happy, they’re just going to go work somewhere else,” he said.
Pushing a mandatory office return may not be “a great strategy if the city wants to retain long-term employees,” Emery added.
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