NE employees union steps up legal fight, says state in contempt for ignoring remote work ruling

By: - January 4, 2024 4:45 pm
NAPE objection

The Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations — a state labor court — is shown here at a previous hearing related to Gov. Jim Pillen’s order to end remote work. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The labor union that represents more than 8,000 state employees on Thursday stepped up its legal battle over remote work, asking a judge to hold the state in contempt after agency heads ignored an earlier ruling that temporarily halted the governor’s demand for workers to return full-time to the office.

Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees on Dec. 7, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The union cited messages sent this week by leaders of two state departments, Health and Human Services and Revenue. Employees were told to report to assigned office spaces by mid-January.

The messages came despite a Dec. 29 ruling from the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations that put a temporary hold on Gov. Jim Pillen’s edict to end remote and hybrid work arrangements by Jan. 2 

In a media statement Thursday, the Nebraska Association of Public Employees said it filed the latest petition in Lancaster County District Court, asking a judge to enforce the CIR’s order and to hold the state in contempt.

“The CIR’s order is clear and unambiguous. It’s shocking that the State would simply ignore the Commission’s order,” said Justin Hubly, the union’s executive director. “The state has left us with no option but to go to court to enforce the CIR’s order.”

‘Incredibly disheartening’

Hubly called the state’s actions “incredibly disheartening” but said that union members remain committed to working in the best interest of all Nebraskans.

Said Hubly: “We continue to be hopeful the State of Nebraska will avoid this needless litigation and agree to negotiate with our union.”

Pillen in November announced his directive that state employees, with a few exceptions, return to physical offices in 2024. The pandemic was over, he said.

While Pillen characterized the move as fitting a “common sense expectation” that workers are most productive working together in an office, union officials expressed fears that recruitment and retention would suffer at a time when many state agencies already were short-staffed.

Gov. Jim Pillen during an interview with the Nebraska Examiner on Dec. 27, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

On Dec. 13, the union filed the CIR petition, alleging that the state violated the state employees collective bargaining act by refusing to negotiate over the governor’s executive order. It also filed a motion for temporary relief, asking the CIR to order a halt to implementation of the executive order while the petition is pending.

In granting the temporary halt on Dec. 29, the CIR said the “status quo” in working arrangements must continue until it was able to rule on the union’s objection.

According to the union and its members, however, on Jan. 2 the Department of Health and Services sent individual messages to employees who have been working remotely. 

‘Ending your remote/hybrid work agreement’

At least one message, in part, said: “Be advised the agency is ending your remote/hybrid work agreement. Please be prepared to report to your assigned worksite at your scheduled start time on January 17, 2024.”

On Jan. 3, the union said, the Tax Commissioner sent email to employees of the Department of Revenue: “I am using my authority as an agency director and independently requiring DOR teammates to return to the office full-time beginning on January 16, 2024.”

The CIR’s order is clear and unambiguous. It’s shocking that the State would simply ignore the Commission’s order.

– Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees

DHHS spokesman Jeff Powell on Thursday declined to respond, saying that the department would not comment on pending litigation.

The Revenue Department and the Governor’s Office did not immediately respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

The union, in its Thursday court filing, cited a state statute that says temporary or final orders entered by the CIR are to be binding on all parties and deemed of the same force and effect as orders entered by a district court.

It said the state “is willfully and contumaciously in violation” of the CIR’s Dec. 29 temporary order.

Lawyers representing the union said the state should be forced to show why it should not be held in contempt for willful violation of that order of status quo and asked for further relief the court deems equitable and just.


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.