Latest news on COVID vaccination, teleworking and the right to disconnect

At Generation 2004 we continue to closely follow the development of all matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic and to voice your concerns and requests to the administration.

Here you find the most up-to-date information provided during the last meeting with DG HR devoted to COVID-19 (the 20th on the issue so far!) held 12 February 2021, complemented with that provided in communication update 30.

COVID-19 vaccination campaigns

These should start in March both in Brussels and in Luxembourg. However there are differences, for example, in Luxembourg the vaccination campaign will go through the national system and its 6 phases [1]: meaning that the Luxembourg state decides who to vaccinate first and is targeting those it considers vulnerable. In contrast the Commission might have decided to target critical staff first (this might be an issue for our Luxembourg-based nuclear inspectors). In Brussels vaccination will be carried out at the Breydel building (the Commission is accredited as a vaccination centre by the Belgian authorities). The Brussels centre has the potential to administer 1 000 jabs a day and all Brussels staff could be covered by the end of July if enough doses are available.

Check the vaccination campaign in your Commission premises: some are limited to staff members; families and pensioners are to be vaccinated through national systems [2].

Executive agencies and the European External Action Service (EEAS) teamed up with the Commission in this exceptional effort, while Parliament and the Council are establishing their own vaccination centres and procedures.

The issues raised related to the vaccination campaign for staff in representations seem to be mostly solved. On the other hand, the delegations face substantial challenges depending on their location. It was announced that vulnerable colleagues could be vaccinated in Brussels, while the others would probably have to wait a bit longer.

We also asked whether the Commission would issue a vaccination certificate. The reply was that where the Commission has administered the vaccine, it will transfer vaccination data to the national authorities, which will be in charge of any certificates.

Coming back to the office remains well out of sight

Compulsory teleworking remains the norm in all Commission premises and the Belgian authorities continue to insist on the largest possible recourse to working remotely.

As we approach one full year of compulsory teleworking (since 16 March 2020), we at Generation 2004 are receiving an increasing number of requests from you concerning various aspects of the ongoing pandemic measures and as usual we have voiced your requests to the administration.

  1. Two weeks of teleworking from abroad before Easter: we built upon the successful requests we tabled during summer and before the Christmas break to ask again for much-needed flexibility before Easter to allow staff to safely travel and visit their loved ones, while having any quarantine period covered by teleworking arrangements. After the 12 February meeting, we reiterated our request in a note to the director-general of DG HR, Ms Ingestad. We hope that once again DG HR will reply positively and as soon as possible [3].
  2. We also raised an issue you have contacted us about: inconsistency. How is it possible that requests concerning teleworking from abroad are treated so very differently by various DGs? Why are some DGs stricter that others (DG FISMA, DG SCIC)? DG HR didn’t give any guidance on this, except the flexibility that DGs have in interpreting the rules.
  3. Costs related to long-term teleworking: again, we raised the issue of the costs related to working permanently from home for 1 year, which is having a disproportionate impact on colleagues with the lowest salaries, including in particular Contract Agents (CAs) and Assistant/Clerks (AST/SCs). We asked for a flat-rate payment to cover additional expenses related to internets costs, higher utility bills, telephone costs, printing, etc.
  4. Additionally, we pointed out that, although we are glad that our previous requests were taken into consideration and the reimbursement campaign for screens and office chairs [4] seems to be proceeding at full speed, a ‘home office’ (or for many a ‘kitchen-table office’, Luxembourg, we hear you!) is much more that a screen and a chair. Staff have had to rearrange their private living area to accommodate a work space, use their private mobiles for work communications and buy items beyond a chair and screen e.g. a language-specific keyboard, a desk, a printer, or even a second screen for those whose job requires it. DG HR replied that they are currently considering the possibility of some form of reimbursement or flat-rate payment for the future.

Right to disconnect, burnout and mental health [5]

We reiterated our request for comprehensive measures to address the digital overload and set out the right to disconnect. Indeed, many of you have contacted us because your workload has increased in the last year and the lines between work and private life are increasingly blurred. Generation 2004 is convinced that setting out a specific right to disconnect and to have a private life especially during teleworking is very urgent. DG HR agreed on this issue and stated that they will propose a text aimed at preventing digital overload.

Once again, we asked for precise data concerning burnout and long-term illnesses. The usual reply is that these data are difficult to collect. However, as specialists are increasingly voicing their concern that there will be a COVID third wave which will not be the virus itself but rather a mental-health pandemic, we at Generation 2004 are convinced that more should be done by the Commission to investigate the situation and take appropriate measures to avoid this new wave of burnout and mental-health issues among our staff.

Medical service

We also asked for clarification on the annual check-up and it was confirmed that these are suspended in Brussels due to lack of staff, as all personnel are allocated to COVID-related functions – testing, preparation for the vaccination campaigns, etc. Therefore we requested that 100% reimbursement be granted where colleagues have an annual check-up performed by their GP. The same 100% reimbursement should apply to any additional tests or examinations prescribed in this context [6]. For more detailed information on this issue, we are asking DG HR for clarification on this.

Additionally, we made enquiries on the non-acceptance of quarantine certificates issued by the Luxembourgish authorities, as it appears that they are not considered valid for sick leave by the Commission’s medical service. It was confirmed that in future colleagues will not be asked to produce a second medical certificate from a GP but will instead be contacted to ascertain whether they have symptoms and thus cannot work, or they have no symptoms and must then telework.

This is a summary of the information we received during the meeting on 12 February together with the HR updates.

As usual, if you have any other questions or requests or your experience is different from what’s outlined above, feel free to contact us.

To have a gist of the work we have been doing since last March on issues related to the pandemic, click here.

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[1] While Luxembourg has no plans to vaccinate cross-border workers in general (in contrast to previous mask distribution and vaccination campaigns) an exception has been made for certain institutions.

[2] Brussels states that your families will be vaccinated by the Commission (FAQ 40).

[3] Update 16.3.2021: ‘In order to allow you to comply with the quarantine rules when going home or traveling during your annual leave, we are proposing that you could use a
maximum of 2 weeks of teleworking from abroad. This will be possible until the end
of the year. This should of course be done in agreement with your line managers and
taking into account the latest limitations or bans of your host country and the country of
destination.’

Update: at 24.3.2021 XXI information meeting on coronavirus this issue was clarified as being a ‘pot’ of 10 days which  must be used in combination with at least 5 days of annual leave (AL) each time, (e.g. 1 day telework + 5 AL days or 3 days of telework + 6 AL days). HR does not anticipate adding to this pot e.g. for Christmas 2021.   In a response (24.3.2021)  to a note on teleworking from abroad, HR explains the how these 10 teleworking-from-abroad days can be used.

Teleworking guidelines (updated 18 March 2021).

[4] The deadline for screen/chair purchase is 1 April 2021 and that there is now a special chair offer with Interstuhl (we hope ‘Holland’ there is a typo for the Netherlands. If not, please let us know).

[5] Update 25.6.2021 Working time and hybrid working decision puts in writing the proposed abolition of core time in favour of a ‘connection bandwidth’. The obvious worry is that this then becomes the time where a response is expected, we have stated this to HR.

‘Article 4 – Daily working hours
1. Staff have the flexibility to choose how to spread their time daily, but this should be agreed with the line manager depending on the needs of the service. Staff should work mainly between 8:00 and 19:00.’

See also, Eurocrats burn out under ‘insane’ Green Deal workload (25.06.2021)

[6] News 10.2.2021: ‘… colleagues should perform their blood test in an external laboratory and request reimbursement at normal JSIS rates’. [Bold is not present in the original].

We are monitoring this and remind you that the annual medical examination has a legal basis and is set out in Article 59(6) of the Staff Regulations: ‘6. Officials shall undergo a medical check-up every year either by the institution’s medical officer or by a medical practitioner chosen by them. In the latter case, the practitioner’s fees shall be payable by the institution up to a maximum amount fixed for a period of no more than three years by the Appointing Authority after consulting the Staff Regulations Committee.’

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