District Court rules State of Nebraska did not violate order to halt return-to-office requirement

Feb. 5, 2024, 4:45 p.m. ·

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Nebraska Association of Public Employees Executive Director Justin Hubly shares concerns with Gov. Jim Pillen's executive order ending most remote work arrangements for state employees at a December press event. (Photo by Brian Beach/Nebraska Public Media News)

A Lancaster County District Court judge ruled Monday that the state of Nebraska did not willfully violate an order from the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR) to pause a return-to-office mandate for state employees.

The decision comes nearly two weeks after a court hearing in which the Nebraska Association of Public Employees (NAPE), a union representing more than 8,000 state employees, asked the judge to hold the state in contempt for requiring some employees to end their remote working arrangements and return to the office in early January.

In November 2023, Gov. Jim Pillen signed an executive order ending remote work options for most state employees, which was scheduled to take effect Jan. 2 of this year.

NAPE responded by filing a petition with the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations on Dec. 13 after the state refused to negotiate over the order.

The union alleges the state’s refusal violated the State Employees Collective Bargaining Act.

The union also filed a motion for temporary relief, which the CIR granted on Dec. 29, ordering the state to hold off on implementing the executive order until the petition is resolved.

In early January, the union claimed that some state agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Nebraska Department of Revenue, ignored the CIR’s ruling and sent messages requiring union employees to return to the office.

That led the union to file a lawsuit against the state in Lancaster County District Court.

In Monday’s ruling, Jacobsen wrote, “The State’s actions are not those of a party thumbing its nose at a tribunal. They are instead the actions of a party laboring to understand how a tribunal’s order should be applied to policies not considered by the tribunal.”

Despite the ruling in favor of the state, NAPE executive director Justin Hubly said the District Court case accomplished the union’s goals.

“While we had no desire to go to the District Court to hold the state accountable, this action proved well worth it, because only after appearing in court did the state comply with the CIR’s order,” Hubly said.

The CIR trial determining whether the state violates the State Employees Collective Bargaining Act by refusing to negotiate is scheduled to begin Feb. 26.

Hubly said he is hopeful the state will agree to negotiate with the union before then to avoid the trial.

By way of full disclosure, some Nebraska Public Media staff are members of the NAPE union.