Remote-working precedent: a workaround or a can of worms?

In January a call for expression of interest presented the possibility to work in a DG Health and Food Safety (SANTE [1]) unit in Luxembourg from any Commission site ‘for about six months’. As stated in the email, the initial Luxembourg-wide call had been unsuccessful, so this was a ‘plan B’ of sorts in these difficult times, a workaround.

Unfortunately, this quick fix opens a can of worms (there are so many issues here we almost didn’t know where to begin, hence the delay in writing this article. If you spot any additional issues, please feel free to get in touch and we’ll add them to this list!)

Teleworking from abroad: surely if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me, no?

Currently teleworking from outside the place of assignment/employment is only allowed in very specific circumstances (5.1(b)) or at specific times (summer, Christmas (5.1(b)), and  throughout 2021 (2 weeks)). While there is talk of readjusting these guidelines in the future e.g. so that occasional telework days can be spent elsewhere (as is the case in the Court of Auditors), this call for expression of interest sets a precedent whereby any job which can be done remotely can be done from any other site, making it more than a little disingenuous to refuse colleagues’ requests to be able to telework from another country when the work can be done remotely [2].

So some staff must be physically present in Brussels to do a Brussels-based role via telework but other staff can do a Luxembourg-based role from any Commission site, right?

There’s an inconsistency here between the flexibility permitted in allowing colleagues from anywhere to do a Luxembourg-based DG SANTE role ‘for about six months’ and the strict limitations imposed on other staff e.g. those in the soon-to-expire Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency (Chafea) [3] and on staff in representations who must rotate to a new country as normal, global pandemic or not.

Why is there flexibility in reacting to an unforeseen (but not unexpected, see below) recruitment issue but rigidity and urgency in dealing with the manufactured circumstances of moving the location of an established executive agency in the midst of a global pandemic?

Why can exceptions made for some but not for others?

So … the Commission is simultaneously promoting Luxembourg as a place to work while removing posts to Brussels and allowing Luxembourg roles to be carried out remotely from other sites? Really?

There is a long-standing recruitment issue in Luxembourg: it is less attractive than other sites for several reasons, e.g. it is significantly more expensive than Brussels [4] but there is no compensation for the higher accommodation costs. (In our videoconferences how many of you have noticed a kitchen-table office, rather than a home office? This is why!) Further to this, some of the assistant base-grade salaries were until recently below the national poverty threshold and are now just above that threshold [5]. Non-emergency hospital treatment currently requires even more paperwork (and expense to the individual!) than elsewhere since the agreement between the hospitals and the Joint Sickness Insurance Scheme (JSIS) expired and has not yet been replaced.

‘DG HR continued to monitor progress under the 2015 ‘Georgieva-Asselborn’ agreement between the Commission and the Luxembourg authorities towards ensuring that 12.5% of the Commission’s total staff work in Luxembourg by 2022. […] Despite all the activities and projects launched to increase the attractiveness of the Luxembourg site since 2017, the percentage of staff has fallen from 11.7% to 11.4%. In order to analyse the situation and the relative attractiveness of the site compared with Brussels, DG HR commissioned a statistical study by an independent contractor, which found a 10.5% difference in the cost of living, mainly due to the cost of housing.’ (HR in 2019 p. 86)

Technicalities: place of assignment or place of residence?

Will these remote-based DG SANTE colleagues have Luxembourg national day (23 June) with the rest of their DG SANTE unit or the Belgian national day (21 July) as a public holiday? What about the coefficients, expatriation/foreign-residence allowance, annual travel payment? These issues are often raised as impediments to teleworking from abroad when that possibility is raised by colleagues, why are they not a problem in the case of DG SANTE (nor in the case of Chafea colleagues April-September)?  And why are these issues not a problem, when Belgian, German or French colleagues, who live in the same area where they were born and grown up, are affected?

And the future?

What happens after the initial 6 months in DG SANTE if/when there continue to be no suitable Luxembourg-based candidates? The issues with the attractiveness of Luxembourg are long standing and, until the housing-cost issues are addressed, will not go away. The call for expression of interest is a stopgap, not a solution. If there were to be issues with recruiting to the new executive agency roles in Brussels, and expertise available in Luxembourg, would it then be permitted for those posts to be carried out remotely?  Taken to an extreme, what is to stop roles being placed in countries with lower coefficients?

Where do you see this going?

As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact us.

[1] Please note SANCO became SANTE 1.1.2015.

[2] 12.2.2021 we sent a note to HR with the results of our survey on teleworking from abroad and requesting that ‘a social dialogue on teleworking be opened as soon as possible so that the staff representation can meaningfully contribute to designing the new provisions in this field.’ We received a response 24.3.2021 promising this: we will keep you posted on the outcome.

[3] That executive agency, the only one which existed outside Brussels, is to be disbanded: all executive agency staff must be physically present in the same location, Brussels, to ‘develop synergies’  (Cost-benefit analysis, 2020, p. 39): Chafea staff can exceptionally telework from Luxembourg until September 2021, but will be based in Brussels from 1 April. Those who are reluctant to leave Luxembourg must find another role (possibly with a less-favourable contract) or become unemployed (Point 1.14) risking a massive loss of expertise.

[4] For renting, Luxembourg City is the most expensive in the Deloitte, Property Index 2020 (p. 26) i.e. more expensive than Paris or inner London. For the curious among you, Brussels is in joint 32  place with Lisbon out of 63.

For buying a new property Luxembourg City comes third, after Paris and Tel Aviv (p. 20). All locations in Luxembourg, Germany and France were more expensive than Brussels. To allow comparison with the renting point above, Lisbon was slightly more expensive than Brussels in this aspect.

[5] ‘Currently around 6 % of staff, all of them GFI and GFII contract staff, earn less than the lowest paid official (AST/SC1, with a basic yearly salary around €32 400). Another third of staff (across all categories) earn up to twice that amount.’ Point 61, ECA, 2019, Special report no 15/2019: Implementation of the 2014 staff reform package at the Commission – Big savings but not without consequences for staff.

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