Is working from home really voluntary?

*Update 21.09.2022 links to assistance for those facing financial difficulties  added [6]* *Update 09.09.2022: the colleague who requested reimbursement of the teleworking-related internet and phone costs  during COVID-19  has lost case T-486/21, see judgment (07.07.2022).*

There’s a disconnect between the image presented in the working time and hybrid working (WTHW) decision and the reality for Commission staff in terms of choice of work location and working-from-home (WFH) costs.  First on choice, the WTHW states that WFH/teleworking is voluntary (Article 9(3)) while the Commission simultaneously pursues a building policy of reducing overall office space and open-plan/hot-desking environments. Would there really be a desk for everyone if all Commission staff chose to work from the office at the same time? Would everyone be able to carry out their tasks at that desk? (E.g. carrying out sensitive tasks in an open environment/staff with additional needs finding no place with specialised furniture available. This was highlighted when buildings were closed during the summer (on a ‘voluntary‘ basis: who volunteers each building?) as part of the Buildings Energy Saving Together (BEST) Action and staff invited to either work 100% from home for the period or be displaced.

  • Brussels: COV2, G-12, SPA2 and L-56
  • Luxembourg: LACC.

Note that there is the suggestion of repeating building closures this coming winter, this time with the excuse of  ‘Save gas for a safe winter’ plan: ‘Looking ahead, the Commission will further decrease its own consumption … Other avenues will be explored such as making more efficient use of our buildings. This will allow the institution to further decrease the overall number of buildings to be heated or cooled.​’

But back to the WTHW decision disconnect, after the mismatch on choice we have a similar mismatch on costs. The WTHW offers the possibility of ‘a lump sum covering certain costs of teleworkers’ (Article 13(4)). No Commission staff have received any such contribution to date [1] and HR have repeatedly mentioned that the budget does not allow for any such payment, meaning that the lump sum will exist on paper only (WTHW social dialogue).

What’s the connection between choice and cost? The assertion that teleworking is now ostensibly voluntary dilutes the idea that the employer should contribute to the associated costs: if we are genuinely choosing to work from home then why should our employer contribute to our associated costs?

‘Previously, when teleworking was not mandatory, [the way the costs of teleworking are shared between employer and remote worker] was rarely discussed. However, there is now a growing consensus that employers should contribute to the cost of teleworking (e.g. in terms of covering Internet and electricity fees, rent, etc.) (Popescu, 2020).’ (European Parliament, 2021, The impact of teleworking and digital work on workers and society, p. 45)

Here’s a summary of the elements necessary to ensure business continuity provided free of charge to the Commission by its staff since 16.03.2020 (since March 2022 by choice, right?)[2]

  • private mobile phone/landline
  • domestic internet connection
  • space within the private home (particularly costly in Luxembourg [3]): some colleagues even moved home in order to accommodate long-term 100% teleworking
  • table/desk
  • utilities: e.g. electricity, water, gas.

The Commission is well aware of the teleworking costs staff have absorbed: in addition to our own notes and survey it has received (and dismissed) several Article 90.1 requests where colleagues tried to claim for their increased costs. The Commission received a detailed analysis from the Permanent Delegation of Translators (DPT) in April 2021 and Eurostat conducted its own Staff Housing Survey, including questions on staff’s WFH setup (full results were promised for Autumn 2021, but they are not yet published). The Staff Regulations are clear on who should pay for work expenses:

‘An official shall be entitled, as provided in Annex VII, to reimbursement of expenses incurred by him … in the course of or in connection with the performance of his duties.’ (Staff Regulations, Article 71)

Unfortunately, it is still not enough for the Commission to reduce ‘direct capital, energy and maintenance costs’ for itself while shifting them onto staff working from home [4]: in July 2022 the Council of the European Union requested that the Commission further reduce spending on staff.  The Commission has stated its intention to defend Commission staff purchasing power, but that purchasing power is already falling. The teleworking costs absorbed by staff are increasing: particularly the cost of utilities. In Luxembourg natural gas prices have risen by almost 30%, in Belgium natural gas costs 50% more. Several Member States are taking measures to protect their population but Commission staff are often excluded from such measures.

What happens next?

  • The Commission must respond to the Council with regards to its request to cut spending on staff in September.
  • The Commission must carry out the risk assessment/study outlined in ECA Special report no 15/2019 Recommendation 3.
  • The Commission publishes general guidelines for the WTHW decision [5] we can see then how voluntary teleworking really is.
  • We continue to encourage as many staff as possible file formal Article 90.1 requests with their additional teleworking costs (particularly those relating to obligatory teleworking (i.e. before 24.03.2022)) [6]

While we do concede that some teleworking staff may well have saved a little in terms of their commute, this is not true of all staff (e.g. Luxembourg has free public transport/some colleagues walk to work) and any saving there is more than offset by the additional costs incurred. This interinstitutional inequality disproportionately affects those lower in the pay scales.  We encourage the Commission to listen to the consensus and share the costs.

Are any of you who are able to telework choosing to work 100% in the office? Are there any difficulties with this? Do you leave your laptop at work? Please share your experience! We will raise your points in the new WTHW committee.

As always, we would love to hear from you. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us or leave a comment below.

If you appreciate our work, please consider becoming a member of Generation 2004.

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[1] Notably, Parliament staff have been receiving a monthly lump sum since April 2020, the month following the start of generalised teleworking (16.03.2020). Generation 2004 requested that the Commission do the same (ANNEX).

[2] Note also that many staff did not receive a corporate laptop until several months after the enforced teleworking began, requiring them to use (and sometimes even purchase) a device in order to be able to work. A screen and a chair were the only items ever reimbursed and some staff were treated differently:

  • intérimaires were excluded
  • contract agents and temporary agents are obliged to repay some of the reimbursement on leaving
  • seconded national experts (SNEs), colleagues at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and those in the European External Action Service (EEAS) had different, parallel schemes.

[3] ‘The average rent paid in 2021 is around 27% higher for staff working in Luxembourg than in Brussels. It should be remembered that these are six-year average values, not just the observed rent for the current year.’ (Eurostat Staff Housing Survey, 2021). In March 2022 there were 12 actions proposed to increase the attractiveness of Luxembourg as a place of employment. Generation 2004 advocates for a housing allowance to address this (particularly for staff at the lower end of the salary scales). See section ‘Attractiveness of Luxembourg/cost of living’ in our external resources.

[4] A widespread phenomenon, accelerated by the pandemic. See European Parliament, 2021, The impact of teleworking and digital work on workers and society, p. 119). Here are some significant moments to mark in September 2022:

  • 2.5 years since we started 100% teleworking and absorbing all associated costs (16.03.2020)
  • 1.25 years since the IT equipment package was made available for some staff (01.06.2021)
  • 1 year since the start of the return to the office (1 day per week from 09.2021)
  • 6 months since telework became officially voluntary (WTHW published 24.03.2022)

[5] DGs are currently doing their own thing, leading to inevitable inconsistencies.

[6] Here is a template. After you have completed it and have scanned your receipts and bills, please send everything to HR and let us know how you get on. Please note also that there is financial assistance/flexibility available for those who are struggling to make ends meet. Check out:

Do you know of any more sites/help? Let us know and we’ll publish them here!

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