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July 10, 2024

Mayor Cherelle Parker stands firm on return-to-office policy as union's lawsuit to block it heads to court

The in-person work mandate for city employees is set to take effect Monday if it survives the pending legal challenge.

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Cherelle Parker return to work update Michaela Althouse/PhillyVoice

Mayor Cherelle Parker addressed pushback against her return-to-work mandate Wednesday, saying she stands by the policy. City workers are due back July 15, but one group said the legislation violates its union contract.

Mayor Cherelle Parker said her policy requiring municipal employees to return to work, in-person, five days a week will create a more visible and accessible government for the residents of the city.

"... (A) city government that our residents can see, touch and feel," as Parker described it during a press conference Wednesday.

MORE: Philly's new Office of Public Safety brings together several city services

The return-to-office mandate is set to take effect Monday, but first on Thursday, a Common Pleas judge will weigh in on the issue. Last week, District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the city's white-collar workers filed a lawsuit claiming that Parker's plan violates the union's contract and asked a judge to stop it. The union also filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. 

The mayor's office believes eliminating remote work does not require collective bargaining with the union, and Parker said having employees back in their offices fulltime will benefit Philadelphia's economy. She referred to her campaign promises to create a "government in action," make Philadelphia the cleanest, greenest big city in the U.S. and foster economic opportunity for all. 

"I made a decision that I stand by firmly," Parker said, "and that is, in order to make good on that promise to you, that I needed Philadelphia's municipal workforce to return to office to provide valuable supports and services to you, the taxpayers."

About 80% of the city's 26,000 employees worked on-site five days a week in 2023, the Parker administration says. That includes firefighters, police, correctional officers, sanitation and social workers and employees of the Philadelphia Water Department, Parks & Recreation and Department of Licenses and Inspection, who have been working full-time in the office.

The remaining 20% worked between 31 and 75 hours in-person per two-week pay period. 

Parker declined to answer questions about the lawsuit or what she would do if a judge blocks her order.

"We will not comment on any litigations or court proceedings, that's not the purpose of why we're here today," Parker said. "But I did want to say to the people of the city that nothing about my standing has changed." 

Greg Boulware, president of AFSCME District Council 33, the union that represents the city's 9,000 blue-collar workers, spoke to the media after Parker's press conference at City Hall. He said there are about 1,700 members doing hybrid work who would be affected Monday. He believes Parker should meet with union leaders to discuss how to move forward with the plan and potentially change the return-to-office timeline or offer incentives for workers who "make very little money" and now face added costs for childcare. 

"We've had people that were hired under the premise that they were working a hybrid schedules, now that's being removed from them," Boulware said, adding that he would not advise any union members to defy the mayor's in-office policy, should it take effect Monday.

Despite the blowback from the unions, Parker said that she supports of organized labor and has the "receipts" to prove it. 

"I support Philadelphia's municipal workforce. I am a pro-workers, pro-union, pro-labor mayor," Parker said. "I am no Johnny-come-lately to supporting organized labor and I have a track record to affirm it." 

Boulware said he hopes Parker's pro-labor feelings carry over to District Council 33's contract negotiations. D.C. 33's three-year contract with the city expired June 30.