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Union: New Mexico calling state employees back to in-person work without much of a plan

Being able to telework the last couple of years helped many state of New Mexico employees and protected their health, workers say as the government looks to end the practice. The local chapter of a union is holding a rally Tuesday morning to protest the administration's requirement that state workers return in-person soon. (Getty Images)
Union complaint cites violations of the bargaining agreement and labor law

Nicholas Carnes is a compliance officer for the Oil Conservation Division at the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

At the beginning of the pandemic, New Mexico’s public health order in March 2020 required state employees to telework. Carnes, a CWA member from Española, felt like it was a step forward for the state government where he has worked for nearly six years, and gave workers better work-life balance, saved them money on fuel, and allowed them to avoid catching COVID.

But the State Personnel Office announced at the end of the year that all state employees would return to in-person work on Jan. 3.

“I was disappointed for state workers as a whole, personally,” Carnes said.

Then the deadline for most employees to head back to government buildings was pushed out to Feb. 2.

Some state workers are now applying for telework as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Dan Secrist, president of the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America based in Santa Fe. Many of them have medical conditions. Some are immunocompromised, or suffer from anxiety attacks around large numbers of other people.

“We’re not getting a lot of cooperation from the HR bureaus in the agencies on these requests,” Secrist said.

Three unions represent N.M. government employees, and their perspectives on going back to in-person work vary.

Robert Trombley is the public safety coordinator and staff representative for the regional council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He represents guards and other state workers at nine state prisons, 16 local jails and juvenile detention centers.

“All my people were essential workers. They didn’t telework,” he said. “I haven’t been involved in this until recently.”

Trombley said the state government is so far taking the necessary steps to keep workers safe as they return to the offices.

“The problem hasn’t hit yet,” he said. “It’s a concern, and the state’s actively working on it. But at the end of the day, if they can’t do it, it’s gonna be something we have to address.”

If state agencies can’t provide safe office space by Feb. 3, he said, AFSCME will most likely ask those agencies for another extension of the return deadline.

“No replacement policy is being negotiated,” State Personnel Office Director Teresa Padilla said in an emailed statement on Thursday.

Still, Carnes has no clear understanding of why the State Personnel Office is rescinding the telework policy to begin with, he said.

CWA’s Secrist echoed that sentiment.

“The underlying problem is SPO has literally no plan beyond, ‘Come back to work on this date,’” he said.

CWA alleges end of telework is unlawful

In 2020, government workers went home to work as part of the governor’s public health order. A year later, the State Personnel Office approached the communications workers union in the spring of 2021 to propose and bargain a permanent, non-mandatory, telework policy, Secrist said.

It went into effect that June. With the policy, if a state worker has symptoms and tests positive for COVID, but they are not feeling too badly, they are supposed to telework.

Trombley with AFSCME said the telework plan was only supposed to be temporary.

Secrist doesn’t see it that way, he said.

“It was meant to be permanent,” Secrist said. “It was bargained between us. It contained provisions that provided flexibility for management to adjust to the needs of the agency and the job.”

On Nov. 29, the new State Personnel Office Director Teresa Padilla wrote a one-page letter to Secrist and the staff representative for CWA notifying them the state government was rescinding the telework policy.

Padilla gave the union three days to request to meet with her “to bargain the effects of this policy rescission.” If they did not ask to meet by then, Padilla wrote, the state government would proceed with getting rid of the policy “without input from CWA.”

Padilla wrote a one-page letter, dated the same day, to all state employees notifying them the state had “initiated discussions” with union leaders to get workers back into offices on Jan. 1.

The letter was sent only nine minutes after the letter to CWA, according to a two-page prohibited practices complaint against the State Personnel Office filed with the N.M. labor board on Dec. 20.

The state is trying to end the telework policy without input from CWA, the complaint states, even though the union has repeatedly demanded to bargain about whether to change the telework policy in the first place — not just bargain over the effects of ending it.

The personnel office rejected CWA’s demands to negotiate in good faith “and has instead opted to unilaterally modify the terms and conditions of state employees,” according to the complaint. The union also alleges the state is violating their collective bargaining agreement and state labor law.

In her letter to state workers, Padilla wrote, “As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that we ensure consistent availability of state employees to support the constituents we serve.”

State, unions agreed to clean indoor air

Along with the telework policy, the state and the unions in the spring of 2021 separately negotiated a COVID-mitigation policy meant to minimize the risk of state employees contracting the disease while working in state buildings.

The policy requires each state agency to adopt COVID-safe building practices recommended by the state Occupational Health and Safety Bureau. It links to the federal OSHA building guidance, which recommends installing high-efficiency air filters and increasing ventilation in work environments.

Padilla pointed to the COVID mitigation policy when asked what steps her agency is taking to ensure that when state employees do return to in-person work, they are protected from COVID and other pathogens.

“Employees have access to widely available vaccinations, booster shots, and antiviral treatments, as well as masks,” Padilla said. “We encourage employees to take steps to protect themselves and others from COVID in the workplace — including taking sick leave when they are ill.”

Padilla did not answer a follow-up question sent via email on Thursday asking whether the personnel office is going to work with OSHA to inspect the buildings to ensure they are safe and in line with the policy.

Megan Green, executive vice president of CWA, said the union asked the personnel office to provide an OSHA inspection for every building workers would be returning to.

“They just ignored that request,” Green said. “It is basic to ensure a safe workplace for employees.”

Trombley, on the other hand, said he wasn’t aware of the policy.

“That’s news to me,” he said.

He could not say whether AFSCME has verified with the personnel office that those inspections have taken place.

He said he was not part of the negotiations that created the COVID mitigation policy, but “it doesn’t mean that someone from AFSCME wasn’t, though.”

With telework, Green said, state workers with chronic illnesses have been more able to manage their conditions, and those with children have been able to spend more time with their families instead of commuting.

Telework increases diversity in work spaces, Green said, and is better for marginalized communities.

“The people who are going to be forced to quit are those that are marginalized for one reason or another,” she said. “I think that’s a really concerning move from this administration.”