Mayor Parker doubles down on return-to-office policy

Parker return to office
Mayor Cherelle Parker speaks about her return-to-office policy Wednesday, July 10, during a news conference at City Hall.

Mayor Cherelle Parker on Wednesday doubled down on her contested return-to-office policy, on the eve of a court hearing about the mandate and days before municipal employees who had been working remotely are supposed to report in-person.

Surrounded by members of her cabinet and leaders of construction-related unions who backed her mayoral candidacy, Parker said she is “at war with the status quo.” She alerted city workers in May that they would need to be in the office or at a work site beginning Monday, July 15.

“Nothing about my standing has changed,” she said at a City Hall news conference. “We’re using every tool in the toolbox to make sure that you can see your tax dollars at work in your neighborhood.”

Officials from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the bulk of the municipal workforce, attended Parker’s announcement and warned that the change will have consequences.

“I think that there would be a negative impact if this order were to go through,” AFSCME District Council 33 President Greg Boulware told reporters. “Many people, I believe, would have to consider whether they want to continue their employment with the city.”

“She wants the best and the brightest,” said Robert Harris, vice president of AFSCME District Council 47. “She’s about to lose them.”

DC 47 filed a lawsuit earlier this month, and a judge is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday over an emergency motion to block the policy from going into effect. Parker and union leaders declined to discuss the specifics of the litigation Wednesday.

About 80% of the city’s 26,000 employees are already working on-site, according to the mayor’s office. Some, including police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers, never had the option to work from home, even during the height of the pandemic, Parker has noted.

The Parker administration has not released a breakdown of the departments and job titles of the remaining 20% who are working on a hybrid schedule. Her predecessor, Jim Kenney, allowed departments flexibility in deciding work locations.

“I believe that employee presence at the workplace allows for more personal and productive interactions, facilitates communication, and promotes social connections, along with collaboration, innovation, inclusion, and belonging,” Parker said Wednesday.

Parker added that she wants the city to “establish a model” for corporate, nonprofit and government employers to follow for returning to the office in the wake of COVID-19.

Mayor Cherelle Parker speaks about her return-to-office policy Wednesday, July 10, during a news conference at City Hall.JACK TOMCZUK

In the legal case, DC 47 wants the court to suspend Parker’s mandate pending the results of mediation and a hearing before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Both of those proceedings could take months or even more than a year to resolve.

Union attorneys argue that the new policy needs to be subject to collective bargaining and say that the current arrangement was hashed out through agreements between the city and labor groups.

Should all employees be required to report in-person, workers would, among other hardships, need to scramble to take care of children and older relatives; purchase new cars if they sold their vehicles during the pandemic; and endure longer commutes if they moved further from Center City, DC 47 said in court documents.

\In making her return-to-office announcement in May, Parker said she directed her administration to create provisions for emergency child and elder care and relax restrictions on sick leave. In addition, paid parental leave for municipal employees was increased from six to eight weeks, and her office designated the Friday after Thanksgiving as a holiday.

On Wednesday, Parker said she is committed to an ongoing review of benefits and supports for city workers.

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