SEATTLE — Hundreds of city of Seattle employees working remotely may be ready to quit over proposed return-to-office rules that some think are less about productivity than about repopulating downtown’s flagging business district.
But city officials say the new policy is necessary to help move the city toward a post-pandemic normal and it gives employees far more flexibility than before COVID-19.
The dispute has been simmering since June 13, when Mayor Bruce Harrell emailed employees that he was preparing a “long-term remote/hybrid work policy” for later this year “with an expectation that staff will report to the office or worksite at least two workdays a week.” That’s roughly on par with what many private employers have announced.
Harrell’s email arrived two months after a majority of the city employees who could work remotely in some form — about 35% of the roughly 13,000-member city workforce — were told in March to return to the office.
A new city policy for remote and hybrid work was always going to be needed to replace the “hastily developed policies adopted at the heights of a global pandemic,” Harrell spokesperson Jamie Housen said in an email Thursday.
Since March, all but around 2,300 workers, or roughly 18% of the total, have come back to at least twice a week, Housen said, adding that “employee access to remote and hybrid options has significantly increased compared to pre-pandemic policies.”
But those explanations aren’t working for many of the affected employees, including the roughly 1,300 who are fully remote and the 1,000 who come in once a week, according to the union representing most of them.
They say Harrell’s proposal poses the risk of COVID spread to remote employees and their families, and subjects employees to potential security risks downtown, said Shomari Anderson, a union steward with PROTEC17, which has been negotiating with the city over the return-to-office proposal since June 28. (Under the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city, policies that change working conditions are subject to negotiation, said Anderson.)
Although the number of new COVID cases in Washington state has leveled off recently and deaths are falling, hospitalizations have ticked up, according to state data.
Many union members are also unhappy about the prospect of resuming their pre-pandemic commutes — all the more for employees who relocated to communities where housing is more affordable, Anderson said.
And many of those affected workers say they’d rather quit than come back, according to a recent survey by the union, which 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.”
Those sentiments represent “a very, very strong signal, that, if I was on the other side, I would actually listen to,” said Anderson.
The tensions mirror those emerging across the job market, as many employees resist the ending of a remote work model some feel was just as productive as its in-person predecessor.
That sentiment is pronounced among some union members, who say the city hasn’t yet demonstrated why, after more than two years, a fully or mostly remote work model no longer works, union officials say. “We’ve been out of office for almost two-and-a-half years now,” Anderson said. “And the metrics all point towards us having ... excelled at our job.”
In last month’s email, Harrell argued that in-person work is “key to enhancing the collaboration, communication, and relationship-building that will allow us to build One Seattle,” as the mayor calls his broader efforts to solve city challenges and move the city away from COVID-related emergency measures. Housen, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the mayor “is primarily focused on ensuring the city provides the highest quality of services and support to its residents.”
Harrell also noted that being able to work remotely all or most of the time is a “privilege” available to only roughly a third of the city’s workforce.
But union officials say those explanations don’t support further limitations on remote work. They also say the mayor’s proposal may conflict with previously negotiated contact language over so-called Alternative Work Arrangements, which include remote and hybrid work.
Under that language, “unless the city could demonstrate that there was a ‘business need’ for employees to come in,” the city was required to work with employees to “accommodate their Alternative Work Arrangement,” said Karen Estevenin, executive director of PROTEC17.
Instead, many union members feel Harrell’s proposal partly reflects pressure on City Hall by Seattle business leaders.
Many members still believe city workers are “being brought back so they can walk down the street during their lunch hour and buy a sandwich,” said Karen Estevenin, executive director of PROTEC17. And members “don’t feel good about that,” she added.
Since February, the number of workers in downtown offices has averaged 34% of pre-pandemic levels and was at 32% last week, according to cellphone location data from Placer.ai posted by the Downtown Seattle Association.
Housen said that “while bringing employees back to the office has helped activate and revitalize downtown and neighborhoods across the city, Mayor Harrell is primarily focused on ensuring the city provides the highest quality of services and support to its residents.”
Housen did not respond when asked whether the mayor’s office has data or analysis showing remote work is negatively affecting those services or support.
Downtown business leaders welcomed the mayor’s proposal, but rejected the suggestion that they’ve pressured the city to bring back office workers any sooner that it otherwise would have.
The city is “one of the biggest employers downtown, so there’s real significant impact,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.
Although the DSA had conversations in February with both the incoming Harrell administration and with King County government officials about the importance of bringing office workers back downtown, both Harrell and King County Executive Dow Constantine were already keenly aware of the positive impact government office workers would have downtown, Scholes said.
“We don’t need to beat that into them,” he added. “They come to the table really recognizing that and wanting to help where they can.”
King County has been slowly bringing its roughly 5,000 remote workers back to their offices since March 1, but does not appear to have a new, more stringent policy.
Harrell’s proposal comes after earlier attempts to rein in pandemic-related work arrangements were delayed by COVID.
In December, as omicron cases surged, outgoing Mayor Jenny Dukan and Mayor-elect Harrell agreed that employees “currently teleworking may continue until department return-to-office plans are implemented in the Spring of 2022, unless there is an ongoing business need for them to return to the worksite,” according to a Dec. 20, 2021, notice from the mayor’s office.
In March, Harrell announced that city employees would begin the return to in-person work on March 16.
Estevenin said it wasn’t clear why the Harrell administration chose June to announce the new policy, though she thinks the mayor wants the issue resolved before starting negotiations this fall over a new union contract.
Union officials want to push Harrell to dump his two-day minimum “one-size-fits-all” requirement for remote workers in favor of continuing to set remote work arrangements on a case-by-case basis, Estevenin said. Existing policy has been “working exceptionally” by allowed employees and managers to jointly figure out how to “move the work forward with mutual partnership,” Estevenin said.
The mayor’s office declined to discuss bargaining objectives. But according to Anderson, city officials say the two-day minimum isn’t negotiable and want to focus instead on ways to lessen the impacts on remote employees who are now required to be in-office part of the week.
Timothy Emery, managing partner at Emery Reddy, a Seattle-based employment law firm, said it’s not clear whether union members can override 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.”
But Emery said union members may still have more leverage, given Seattle’s tight labor market. “It’s pretty obvious that if you don’t make this group of people happy, they’re just going to go work somewhere else,” Emery said.
Pushing a mandatory office return may not be “a great strategy if the city wants to retain long-term employees.”