City workers union files a lawsuit to stop Mayor Parker’s return-to-office mandate

AFSCME filed a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia to halt the return-to-office policy that would require employees in the office five days a week.

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City Council hearing

Philadelphia City Council held a hearing to discuss the city's return-to-work policy and hundreds of AFSCME union members filled council chambers. The union has since filed a lawsuit to stop Mayor Cherelle Parker's return to work order.(Kristen Mosbrucker-Garza/WHYY)

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A municipal union that represents thousands of workers in Philadelphia filed a civil lawsuit against the city trying to stop the return-to-work mandate by Mayor Cherelle Parker.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, aka AFSCME, represents about 3,700 administrative, professional and technical assistance workers in Philadelphia as part of District Council 47, according to the lawsuit filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia Tuesday.

AFSCME asserts that the city needs to negotiate with the union before making changes to its remote work policy since it’s mentioned in the contract and the city has already negotiated about alternative work schedules in the past. AFSCME’s contract expired on June 30 but was extended for another month to continue bargaining.

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The union argues that eliminating any remote work would “cause substantial harm for city workers and will throw city services into chaos,” according to the lawsuit.

The city already has thousands of jobs unfilled and union leaders worry “far more will become vacant as employees are unable to accommodate the newfound in-office requirements.”

Many are already working hybrid schedules, said April Gigetts, president of AFSCME District Council 47.

“It’s a misnomer to assume that our members are all five days a week working remotely, that is not the case. The majority of our members work either two or three days in the office,” Gigetts said. “We really feel like this is a retention and recruitment issue. I know that folks are planning to leave and some have already left.”

In late May, Mayor Parker announced that 26,000 city workers would return to working in the office five days a week starting July 15.

Hundreds of unionized city workers pushed back against the administration’s productivity argument during a June city council committee hearing about the return-to-work policy. 

The city’s chief administrative officer Camille Duchaussee told city council that Mayor Parker’s decision wasn’t driven by a push for more productivity.

Instead, it was about more access to in-person services for taxpayers and improving communication, she argued.

“Productivity, in of itself, was not the driver for this decision. The driver for this decision was a leadership philosophy,” Duchaussee said.

At the time, Parker argued that employees working in person “allows for more personal and productive interaction, it facilitates communication, it promotes social connections along with collaboration, innovation and inclusion.”

Mayor Parker declined an interview about the lawsuit and submitted a statement.

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“Our lawyers have just received the lawsuit,” said Joe Grace, a spokesperson for the Parker Administration. “But Mayor Parker’s position on this issue remains unchanged.”

AFSCME wants a judge to issue a preliminary injunction to stop the city from enforcing the return to office policy for its 3,700 union members at least until two different legal proceedings are completed, which are unlikely to happen before July 15.

The union filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, which also requires a hearing with a neutral party to resolve the issue.

There’s also a grievance filed by the union against the city over the return-to-work mandate, which requires an arbitrator to negotiate a solution, but those meetings haven’t happened yet.

“We’re hoping that the grievance will be heard soon by an arbitrator who will ultimately decide whether this issue is a mandatory subject of bargaining,” Gigetts said. “We don’t know why the mayor is taking such a hard line on this.”

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