Arbitrator Upholds CalPERS’s Return-to-Office Policy Over Union Objections

Arbitrator Upholds CalPERS’s Return-to-Office Policy Over Union Objections

A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building in Sacramento, Calif., on July 21, 2009. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

Sophie Li
Sophie Li

5/10/2024

Updated: 5/14/2024

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In a recent ruling, a labor arbitrator has determined that California state agencies could require in-office attendance for employees, despite remote work rights outlined in union contracts.
The decision stems from a dispute between the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the state attorneys’ union, coinciding with the Newsom administration’s upcoming June deadline for in-office work.
Last month, the governor’s office sent out a memo to the 240,000 state workers announcing the new requirement to work in the office at least two days per week starting on June 17, saying departments’ uneven approaches on the issue “have created confusion around expectations and are likely to exacerbate inconsistencies across agencies and departments.”
The dispute arose over CalPERS’s 2022 directive for most employees to work in person for three days per week, following a two-year period of telework during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the arbitration document The Epoch Times obtained through CalPERS. The organization stated that the requirement is solely based on operational needs.
In the arbitration decision, CalPERS pointed out that remote work has led to decreased collaboration among workers, which the organization considers crucial in a legal office. It has also hindered staff productivity and created barriers to the training of new attorneys.
However, the attorneys union, California Attorneys, Administrative Law Judges, and Hearing Officers in State Employment—often known as CASE—challenged the order, arguing that the return-to-office requirement violated staff’s rights as stated in the employment contract.
CalPERS Labor Relations Manager Julie Morgan responded to the union’s concerns, saying numerous independent studies have shown that in-person work fosters “open communication, formal and informal mentoring, team building, problem-solving, and information sharing,” as indicated by the arbitration.
The union also argued that CalPERS failed to prove that performance and productivity were affected during the fully remote work period. On the contrary, CASE stated that the in-office-work mandate has caused many attorneys to leave CalPERS.
By August 2023, the number of vacancies had increased to 10 out of the 28 positions at the legal office. Vacancies were rare before the pandemic and increased during the pandemic, typically numbering about one to five.
The office also became understaffed because of the vacancies, causing CalPERS to send cases to the Department of Justice for deputy attorneys general to handle, according to the decision.
Nevertheless, arbitrator Katherine Thomson rejected the grievance, saying the mandate’s reasoning was legitimate and complied with the employment contract.
“CalPERS has shown that it had several operational needs that were rationally addressed by requiring attorneys to work in the office on a regular basis. Management’s judgment that three in-office days would meet its needs the best is not unreasonable,” Ms. Thomson said in the decision.
She also denied the union’s claim that CalPERS did not apply its telework mandate uniformly to all employees.
“The policy recognizes that not all tasks may be appropriate, and some job classifications may not be appropriate for telework,” she said. “Whether an individual position is eligible for telework is a separate decision based on essential functions of the position and departmental needs.”
CASE didn’t reply to a request for comment before the filing deadline.
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Sophie Li
Sophie Li
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Sophie Li is a Southern California-based reporter covering local daily news, state policies, and breaking news for The Epoch Times. Besides writing, she is also passionate about reading, photography, and tennis.

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