Department of Social Services employees served Gov. Ned Lamont and agency Commissioner Deidre Gifford with a petition Thursday claiming the agency has reneged on union-negotiated telework for employees.
Under the agreement struck with Lamont’s administration and the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, certain state workers who had been teleworking since early in the coronavirus pandemic would be allowed to continue to the end of the year. The agreement applies to all state agencies, union officials said.
But according to a petition signed by 600 union members who are DSS employees, the agency has denied 700 requests for telework since the agreement was signed on July 31.
“The telework agreement is a promise between SEBAC unions and the state,” said AFSCME Local 714 President Jay Bartolomei, an eligibility services supervisor at the DSS Hartford office. “Unfortunately Commissioner Gifford and her senior management broke this promise. Their refusal to comply with a negotiated agreement does nothing to help the citizens of Connecticut, but it does hurt workers. It also breeds a sense of mistrust, harming future negotiations.”
The petition asks Lamont to hold the agency accountable for breaking the law by refusing to adhere to the terms of the agreement.
DSS employees provide a wide array of support services for the state’s most vulnerable residents including administering HUSKY health insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that funds food to economically distressed families, managing Medicaid programs, dealing with home care for the disabled and child support services.
Many DSS employees have been using telework to remain in contact with clients and avoid spreading COVID-19, officials said. SEBAC filed a grievance against Lamont in early July to keep telework in place as the pandemic continues.
“The positive experience that many of our members have had with telework has been an unexpected silver lining during the pandemic,” representatives of SEBAC said in a statement on the grievance in June. “Many have been able to telework throughout and have been more productive, better for the environment, while protecting against the spread of the virus. The program has been good for the missions of our agencies, good for the environment, and good for the state’s bottom line.”
Under the stipulated agreement signed on July 31, state employees who submit a request to use telework less than 50% of their scheduled work time would be granted the ability to telework. Those who sought greater periods of telework would be considered if their bosses agreed it would not impede their work functions, SEBAC said in a separate statement announcing the agreement.
But union officials say the agency has not worked with employees to grant the requests.
“We are proud of what we do and how we help people. I need a lifeline,” said AFSCME Steward Onica Matthews-Davis, a child support investigator for the DSS office in Bridgeport. “Teleworking keeps staff and clients safe while allowing us to perform our duties with the same effectiveness, productivity, and commitment that we’ve always demonstrated. My co-workers are frustrated by the agency’s refusal to honor this agreement.
A spokesman said the agency is doing its best to fulfill the requests, but he did not address the number of telework requests that had been denied.
“Like other state agencies, DSS is doing our utmost to fulfill the telework agreements while continuing to meet the needs of Connecticut residents eligible for our services,” said David Dearborn, a spokesman for the agency. “DSS staff have stepped up throughout the pandemic in their usual dedicated and professional manner.”