MONTPELIER — Concerns over labor contracts may have prolonged the idling of state workers whose Waterbury offices were rendered uninhabitable by flooding nearly two weeks ago.
Unionized employees have in some cases been barred from working from home — even if they want to. Human Resources Commissioner Kate Duffy said Thursday that the administration was reluctant to approve work-at-home arrangements until it had legal clarification around a provision in the union contract that guarantees workers double pay for working in “emergency” situations.
State workers displaced from their offices are still being paid.
“There were a number of questions that we had to assess before we were comfortable making certain decisions,” Duffy said. “I’ve now become more comfortable about how we’re defining an emergency, and whether or not double-pay would apply.”
Duffy said the decision helps pave the way for the return of state employees, some of whom may be asked to work from home.
“We’re in the process right now of going into a more full reassignment of work stations for people, and some of those could be home work stations,” Duffy said. “The union has some concerns, and we’re trying to work those out. But the reassignments will be happening.”
Talks are under way between administration officials and union representatives to iron out work-at-home conditions for employees unable to return to their offices.
“From the (Vermont State Employee Association’s) perspective, they want to make sure there are adequate protections for state employees so employees won’t be abused or put into precarious situations,” Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said Thursday.
The state office complex in Waterbury, which houses more than 1,500 state employees, won’t be inhabitable for months, if state officials even decide to rebuild there.
Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday said the state is on the verge of signing contracts that would provide temporary office space for hundreds of displaced Waterbury workers.
David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said mission-critical staff members have been assigned new workplaces — including their homes.
Mears though said he has yet to reassign non-critical workers, largely over double-time fears.
“There are people that could be working on longer-term environmental issues and permitting issues, just to keep the economy on track so people can continue to build and construct and run businesses and all that,” Mears said. “But I don’t want to incur the risk of paying double time. And it just sounded like there’s enough of uncertainty about it that we made the determination not to create that risk.”
– Peter Hirschfeld