What are public employers up to?

We are looking towards the Covid-19 vaccine with hope. But at the same time, we are looking at the behaviour of numerous public service employers with concern. What’s giving us cause for concern? That public service employees are prepared to take on all the difficulties of working from home to ensure that public administration can continue to function correctly. Employers have been blessed with restrictions which, without the pandemic, most of them wouldn’t have given a second thought. Why is this?

Could somebody please explain to me why City A is forcing its employees to work from home and at the same time is saying that it now applies 24/7? This would appear to confirm our worst fears: employees are being forced to make themselves available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The willingness to work from home itself is not at all what the employer is seeking, but what it implies is the following: all allowances for working at night, weekends, overtime, on-call duty and the like are now cancelled, because we now have 24/7 working, or more precisely: the “Corona System”. You have to wonder who came up with an idea like this; it sounds like working from home is exclusively seen as a benefit for the employees. But it isn’t.

Take the vexing matter of overtime: public service employers everywhere are using the working from home rule to reduce the number of overtime hours worked. That seems to be the main problem at the moment. It brings to mind the restaurants using the pandemic to carry out necessary renovation work on their premises.

At the moment, restaurants either have very few customers or none at all; this is why it makes sense; but public services have work, a lot of it even because of Covid-19, and often the arrangements make no sense whatsoever.

An additional problem is that many public employers hardly seem to concern themselves with the question of whether the order to reduce overtime can even be enforced unilaterally (i.e. without employees’ consent). This question must be decided individually on the basis of the staff regulations. If there is a reference to the Code of Obligations (and the matter of overtime is not covered by the staff regulations), private law regimes apply, which require employees’ agreement on compensation, otherwise overtime hours must be compensated for financially. But such details are often of no interest.

Swiss union ‘Öffentliches Personal Schweiz’ is fielding many enquiries, always dealing with the same subject: the fact that working from home arrangements (still an emergency recommendation from the Federal Council) come with conditions attached, which suggests that public employers are deeply mistrusting of their employees. Obviously some believe that employees don’t work as hard when working from home. There is no other explanation for why compensating for overtime has been given so much focus, why a new Corona System should come into force and why employers should be able to check up on their employees constantly without any financial compensation, and so on.

The situation is the direct opposite: public service employees aren’t enthusiastic at all about having to work from home. It brings considerable disadvantages. There is a lack of social contact, no ability to discuss technical matters face to face, a lack of infrastructure and, the main one, work and constantly being available to the public employer are brought right into the family sphere: everyone may (and must) take part.

However, only a very small number of people are happy to sit around their kitchen table and perform all of the tasks that they are now expected to do from home. Many employees don’t even have the space needed to be able to keep their work and private lives separate (except around the kitchen table). Yet they are prepared to make their kitchen table available to the public service employer so that the federal government’s recommendations can be followed. That isn’t easy. It’s actually quite tiresome, as the kitchen table was not designed as an office desk. Individuals are accepting these considerable organisational restrictions and the extra effort as a way of making their contribution to overcoming the pandemic.

Perhaps public employers simply can’t imagine that this complete absence of work-life balance doesn’t generate happiness but rather stress. The office is at home, employees provide the spatial infrastructure (sometimes in uncomfortable conditions) on the employer’s behalf. It is therefore jarring when as compensation for this, guidelines are being produced with the primary aim of monitoring output rather than what can be offered in return, “what can we do to make working from home bearable for the family?”. No, overtime must be cut. Instead of support and recognition, there is mistrust and disengagement.

This stance suggests a major misunderstanding has occurred. Nobody in the private sector would simply make space and infrastructure available free of charge, that is the very essence of our market economy system. And nobody would tolerate the constant suspicion that they are sitting at home and doing nothing.

It is therefore high time to talk about making improvements! Improving things for the employees who are keeping operations running, making private space available for this very purpose and seeing some major restrictions placed upon their private lives.

There are some “working from home agreements” circulating in public administration. It is noticeable that the correct distinction is not being made between who even wants to work from home and who is primarily benefiting from it. But that is essential. There are 3 distinct cases:

  • Working from home at the request of the employees as part of standard operations (with the employer making a fully equipped workplace available),
  • Working from home at the request of the employer with the agreement of the employees,
  • Working from home as part of compliance with Federal Council guidelines as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are currently talking about the third variant. This is the variant which sees employees accepting restrictions in the private sphere in order to be able to continue working to requirements. In this scenario the employer is called upon to support the employees and make any necessary working equipment available quickly and free of charge. If the employees use equipment (primarily computers, screens, telephones, software, printers, office space) at their own expense, these costs must be reimbursed. Consideration might be given to what the employer would do if he/she had to maintain the infrastructure himself/herself; it is taken as a given that the employee already has a mobile phone, and has a computer, and has a printer, incurring no costs, which is an approach that would not be found anywhere else in a market economy. If the question is asked differently: do employees who do not have a (new enough) computer have to buy one at their own expense when their employer orders them to work from home as part of Covid-19 guidelines? Hardly.

Public employers ought to view working from home from the perspective of their employees being prepared to work from home so as to help the State and society cope with the pandemic.

Employers must also end the practice of using working from home to do away with unpopular overtime (but which the employees are nonetheless doing), positive holiday balances, time in lieu for being on-call, wage top-ups for working at weekends or night and similar measures. It isn’t right.

Urs Stauffer


ZV – Swiss Central Association of Public Personnel