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Remote work trial begins as employees relay what’s at stake under Pillen return-to-office edict

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Remote work trial begins as employees relay what’s at stake under Pillen return-to-office edict

Feb 26, 2024 | 9:21 pm ET
By Cindy Gonzalez
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Remote work trial begins as employees relay what’s at stake under Pillen return-to-office edict
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The Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations — a state labor court — is shown here at a previous hearing related to Gov. Jim Pillen's order to end remote work. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Much of the appeal of working — and staying — at her state government job is the flexibility to work from home, Angie Morten of Holdrege said Monday.

Remote work trial begins as employees relay what’s at stake under Pillen return-to-office edict
Angie Morten, program accuracy specialist with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

“Time and money,” the program accuracy specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services said snappily when asked about benefits to her remote schedule, during the first day of a trial challenging Gov. Jim Pillen’s back-to-the-office executive order.

It’s less mileage on her car, she said. Fewer distractions, more focus. In fact, the 54-year-old said in an interview, the option to work from home, which is about 30 miles from her primary office site in Kearney, is pivotal to whether she moves on to a different employer.

For Anita Wisecup, a DHHS health program manager and Native American liaison, performing her duties full-time from her Papillion home rather than driving back and forth to Lincoln has led to a 40-pound weight loss and time to take on a part-time job.

“It’s the ability to have that work-life balance,” she said.

Remote work trial begins as employees relay what’s at stake under Pillen return-to-office edict
Anita Wisecup, health program manager and Native American health liaison with the Department of Health and Human Services. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

On a day that often waded deep into technicalities of collective bargaining and contract language, Morten, Wisecup and a few other state government workers offered their versions of the human toll that could come from a mandatory return to an 8-to-5 office setting.

With each worker called to the stand by a labor union attorney, however, the state’s lawyer offered a reminder of policies that employees go over during training. That is, said attorney Mark Fahleson, that their department may discontinue or suspend a remote working arrangement at any time without cause.

“That is your understanding of the department’s policy, right?”

Attention on state labor court

Monday kicked off a trial before the Lincoln-based Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations on a topic that for months has gripped the attention of state government employees. 

Central to the case is Pillen’s November executive order that, save for certain exceptions, directs state workers to return to the office. The governor said that the pandemic is over and that the “common-sense expectation” of the public is that state employees are to be working in a state office.

Remote work trial begins as employees relay what’s at stake under Pillen return-to-office edict
More than 100 state employees rallied during a noon hour in early December against Gov. Pillen’s order to end remote work. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Instant objections were raised by the labor union that represents about 8,000 state workers, an estimated 1,300 of whom work remotely, said Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees.

NAPE’s contention is that such a change in the terms and conditions of employment is a prohibited practice that can’t be done without bargaining between the union and the state. It has asked the CIR to step in to resolve the labor dispute.

The CIR previously put a temporary halt on the governor’s order until it makes its ruling.

Among witnesses called Monday were several state officials, including Daniel Birdsall and Sean Davis, who were part of the Pillen team that drew up the executive order.

Under questioning by union attorney Joy Shiffermiller, both men said they did not alert union leaders about the remote work executive order as it was being developed.

“They were confidential conversations,” said Davis, state personnel director.

Asked whether he believed that the executive order changed terms and conditions of employees covered under the union contract, Birdsall said: “I do, speaking for myself.”

However, he said several times that he believes that manager rights allow the Pillen team to make those changes.

‘Blame the governor’

Kelly Lammers, director of the Nebraska Department of Banking and Financing, was another department head who testified during the hearing presided over by CIR Commissioner Gregory Neuhaus.

Jim Pillen
Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Lammers said his team has long negotiated with workers covered by the union contract on where they work and how managers can best help them do their jobs.

Discretion still exists, he said. Lammers said he views the governor’s edict as a “tool” that allows him to end certain work arrangements if he deems them ineffective.

He offered an example of an alternate worksite agreement that he already was considering allowing to expire.

“It is a tool that allowed me to simply blame the governor,” he quipped.

Lawyers and union officials said they expect the trial could wrap up Tuesday, with, a decision to be rendered by the full commission within weeks.