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Acting mayor offers reprieve to some city employees on return to work

In late May, City Hall announced that all employees would be due back to work in person on July 7, if not sooner.
In late May, City Hall announced that all employees would be due back to work in person on July 7, if not sooner.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Acting Mayor Kim Janey offered a last-minute reprieve to city employees whose union filed an unfair labor practice over her order to return to work immediately following the July Fourth weekend.

Janey’s administration has agreed to let some SEIU Local 888 employees delay their return to work, if a review of their individual circumstances warrants it. The union then agreed to drop the complaint it filed last month with the state’s Division of Labor Relations.

“I tip my cap to the mayor for her ability to be amenable,” said Tom McKeever, president of the union, which represents roughly 1,600 city workers.

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The agreement reached on July 2 allows employees who work behind the scenes in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development to continue to work remotely through the summer.

“Respectfully, we asked the mayor for this specific group to allow them to get their affairs in order until after Labor Day,” said McKeever. “And then we’ll revisit or bargain maybe a hybrid method or our folks returning to work in a safe manner.”

But it’s unclear exactly what that means for the rest of the city’s work force.

A spokeswoman for the mayor said that the administration will now entertain all requests for “reasonable accommodations” to their return to work. However, a city human resource official told the Globe last month that those requests would only be granted to those with documented medical disabilities. Employees have been advised not to expect such “reasonable accommodations” if their request is based on other concerns, such as a lack of child care.

The spokeswoman, Emma Pettit, would not clarify the discrepancy, but suggested in a statement that the terms of returning to work last week are still being negotiated with other unions.

“The City continues to work with City unions and employees to assist with the return-to-workplace process and evaluate individual requests for additional flexibility, as they return to in-person work on a case-by-case basis, in adherence to city contracts and policies,” she said.

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McKeever said he believes that employees in other departments will now find similar success with requests for accommodations.

“It was department-specific but that precedent has been set,” McKeever said.

Many of the city’s 18,000 employees worked throughout the pandemic. However, a few thousand employees who work behind desks had been working remotely for more than 15 months while city buildings, like other workplaces across the state, were closed.

In late May, City Hall announced that all employees would be due back to work in person on July 7, if not sooner. (Managers and some public-facing employees were asked to return in the preceding weeks in June.)

But the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint, saying the order should have been bargained. And individual city employees publicly complained that the abrupt back-to-work order failed to acknowledge their realities as working parents and the scarcity of child care in the city post-pandemic. Ten percent of family child care providers and 11 percent of child care centers in the metro Boston region have not reopened since the pandemic, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. The unavailability of child care during the pandemic forced many women out of the workforce nationally. And some female city employees pointed out the irony that they might be forced out of their jobs under Boston’s first female mayor -- a former child advocate and single mother herself.

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In a statement, Janey said she is “truly grateful for the hard work and dedication of all City employees,” who provided vital services throughout the pandemic. City Hall reopened on Tuesday, but only four days a week and by appointment; a full public reopening is planned for Monday.

Janey added that “we will continue to work with our staff and unions to ease this transition. Our priority will always be to serve our residents, while also being flexible to accommodate our staff’s needs.”

The city did not offer a gradual or hybrid return to the workplace, as state government and many private employers have. The city’s Return to Work Guide, sent to employees June 1, offered only the opportunities available through federal programs: Two weeks of emergency paid sick leave could be used to care for children with disrupted child care. An additional 10 weeks of emergency leave could be taken under the Family and Medical Leave Act, if the employee had not already taken that leave in the preceding calendar year, and after exhausting all their vacation, sick and personal leave. Both options pay only at a two-thirds rate.

Still, Janey has repeatedly claimed that she is offering “flexibility” to returning city workers, frustrating some of those who had unsuccessfully requested it.

“Should any employee need to take extended time, we’ve offered that,” Janey was quoted as saying.

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However, one city employee told the Globe on Friday that the city has denied her request to work from home for an extended time and that she has not been offered any flexibility in scheduling. As a result, she’s using vacation and sick time while she tries to secure child care accommodations. Another noted that she was denied a request for a reasonable accommodation that she sought because she doesn’t have child care.

Janey’s prior decision on the back-to-work order caused an unexpected spat with some workers and city employee unions as she runs for a full term as mayor. The former city council president, Janey became acting mayor when former Mayor Martin J. Walsh stepped down in March to become US Labor Secretary.

Her administration on Friday would not specify how many city employees have been granted flexibility, how many have been refused, and how many have quit.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.