Black Employees Slam White Privileged Telecommuting
This February, the Westside Observer reported on Black employees who are suing the City for racial discrimination. Now, Black workers allege that some managers are being granted exorbitant telecommuting or “work-from-home” privileges. Unlike rank and file workers who must stay put and risk their health by providing direct services during the COVID-19 emergency, some executives have been working remotely and safely—from out of state.
On April 24, the Black Employees Alliance (BEA) wrote to SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin, Human Resources Director Carol Isen, the Civil Service Commission, Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors, complaining that; “Kimberly Ackerman, SFMTA Human Resources Director, has relocated back to the state of Virginia (her home state) to care for one of her family members who suffered illness, and has been working remotely from there since mid-2020. Put another way, the SFMTA Human Resources Director has been allowed to work out of state for more than seven months …”
The BEA’s concern is that Ms. Ackerman’s remote work deviates from the City’s telecommuting program. That policy does not allow caring for a dependent during work hours. Moving out of state is barred because employees “must be available to work at the regular worksite on telecommuting days if needed.” Neither does Ackerman’s work arrangement fit the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, whereby employees are granted 3 month-leaves to care for a child or ill relative, or 6 ½ months to care for a disabled military relative. California’s Paid Family Leave program is limited to 2 months. In either case, employees on leave do not continue working.
… even though employees of color tend to be under-represented in jobs that can be performed remotely. What is unjust is if already-privileged managers exploit telecommuting to dodge their Disaster Service obligations.”
City’s Telecommuting Scandal
The City has a long-standing work-from-home program. Following the declaration of a COVID-19 Emergency in March 2020, the Department of Human Resources (DHR) issued an “Interim COVID-19 Telecommuting Program Policy.” This emergency addendum increased remote work options in order to facilitate workplace social distancing per public health guidelines. However, some managers apparently took advantage of the relaxed telecommuting policy—by moving out of state. That spares them from serving as Disaster Service Workers – a City employee requirement. It also defiles the “leadership by example” mantra and “leadership competencies” promulgated by City departments. Frontline workers noticed and grumbled.
Accordingly, on 4/23/21 the DHR updated the Interim COVID-19 Telecommuting Policy with a key revision; “Employees may not remotely perform their City job from outside of the State of California … There may be limited circumstances where an employee may receive approval to work remotely from out-of-state for a brief, defined period of time; however, such remote out-of-state telecommuting requires approval by both the employee’s Appointing Officer or designee and the City’s Human Resources Director or designee, and the request must be supported by compelling business reasons, an explanation of limited family health circumstances, or other critical need. Any employee currently working remotely from out-of-state must return to performing all remote work from within the State of California by no later than September 1, 2021.”
The next day, the BEA reported that Ms. Ackerman’s prolonged relocation to Virginia countered City policy. The BEA sought disclosure of her Telecommuting Agreement—and pointedly asked if such expansive accommodations were available to other employees.
Then on May 5th, DHR director Carol Isen sent an intriguing “Revised COVID-19 Interim Telecommute Policy” to all employees. It seemed to respond to the BEA complaint by re-iterating the out-of-state prohibition; “Over the last year, some employees relocated and are now performing City work remotely from outside of the State of California. This practice will be expressly disallowed for several reasons, including the proper and legal collection of taxes, ability to respond as a DSW (Disaster Services Worker), and the City’s basic operational needs.” What seemed like a crack-down preserved the September 1st return-to-office deadline, thereby extending out-of-state work privileges by 4 months.
That same day, SFMTA’s absentee HR Director Kimberly Ackerman devised her own “Workplace Re-Entry Update” memo, announcing in part; “The SFMTA is planning for onsite returns for specific work functions starting September 2021 but there is no established goal to have all telecommuting SFMTA staff fully back onsite by September 2021.” Seemingly, wiggle-room was added.
Challenging Unfair Telecommuting Privileges
The Black Employee Alliance pounced on Ackerman’s message. In a May 7th email to SFMTA brass and City Hall, it declared; “City leaders have violated City policy and abused their power.” The BEA asserted that other City executives were working out-of-state, including; Justine Hinderliter, the Public Utilities Commission HR-Director (Minnesota), Trent Rhorer, Human Services Agency Director, and Jonathan Rewers, Acting SFMTA CFO (New York). Another source confided that Eric Sandler, SFPUC’s CFO, has been telecommuting from Michigan since mid-2020.
The Westside Observer contacted each named manager for comments. Only HSA’s Trent Rhorer responded; “I have NOT traveled out of state” during the pandemic, but spend “3 days every 8 weeks” in Los Angeles. In response to our inquiry about the absenteeism of HR Director Ackerman and CFO Rewers, the SFMTA Media Office wrote; “Like other City employees, most SFMTA office workers have been required to work remotely throughout the pandemic. There was no ban on out of state work. Some employees, for various reasons, may have been out of state and working remotely. The City did not affirmatively ask where employees were working or centrally collect that information. Now, as we prepare to return to the workplace, the City has affirmatively decided to prohibit out of state remote work, and set a date of September 1, 2021 for employees to come into compliance. SFMTA managers are, and will continue to be, in compliance with the City’s telecommute policy.” Similarly, the SFPUC confirmed that “some employees are working remotely from out of the state”—including CFO Sandler and HR Director Hinderliter. The SFPUC has tightened its telecommuting policy, stressing the mandate to serve during local disasters.
The Westside Observer asked the Department of Human Resources for records showing the number of telecommuters outside California, the duration of their remote work, and their Telecommuting Agreements. Astoundingly, DHR replied “No responsive records.” Perhaps this lack of monitoring enabled a telecommuting free-for-all.
Black Employee Alliance Objections
The BEA’s objections to out-of-state telecommuting arrangements are informative; “These leaders have modeled behavior that is contrary to City policy and the commitment they made … as Disaster Service Workers. If one does not live in the state, one cannot be deployed in the case of actual emergencies. These leaders have been unavailable to participate in, or respond to Disaster Service Worker requirement efforts; and have actually circumvented it by moving out of state.”
“DHR Director Carol Isen has in turn legitimized bad behavior by creating a policy now, that allows for these leaders to return to the state of California, by September 1st, 2021. This provides these leaders with the optimal benefit of remaining out of state for another four months. We are appalled that the City would allow most of its leadership, who are predominantly White, and again are the highest paid, to vacate residency in California, and work from other states for more than 6 months. We believe this is the epitome of White privilege, and it reinforces the reality that White people do not have to follow the rules, because the rules are made by White people predominantly, who break the rules, and then create policies to legitimize poor judgment, and egregious behavior. It also underscores the … scarcity of corrective and disciplinary actions taken against White, and non-Black employees who violate city policy. We want to amplify the point that this benefit has not been widely available to … predominantly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) employees … who have been in the trenches during the entire pandemic.”
Entitled Managers of All Stripes
Viewed solely through a racial lens, these cases could be attributed to White privilege. Another view is that folks at the top of organizations, regardless of race, feel entitled to harvest perks not available to their subordinates. This broader perspective advances multi-racial solidarity. The ongoing corruption scandal roiling City Hall shows that grasping misconduct transcends ethnicity.
The City’s standard Telecommuting Policy clearly states; “Telecommuting is a privilege, not a right.” Eligible employees must be self-motivated with independent, knowledge-based jobs that aren’t location-bound. That does not necessarily mean the policy is unfair, even though employees of color tend to be under-represented in jobs that can be performed remotely. What is unjust is if already-privileged managers exploit telecommuting to dodge their Disaster Service obligations. Therefore, these revelations and inquiries by Black employees are important and should be addressed in good faith - without retaliation.
Dr. Derek Kerr is a San Francisco investigative reporter for the Westside Observer Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
May 21, 2021