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Philadelphia orders workers back to the office. But some say, what about the birds?

A general view of Philadelphia City Hall on June 17, 2023.
Mark Makela
Getty Images
A general view of Philadelphia City Hall on June 17, 2023.

Updated July 13, 2024 at 09:50 AM ET

For office workers in 2024, the debate over in-person versus hybrid versus remote work is still going strong.

Nowhere was that clearer this week than the city of Philadelphia, where a new mayor has ordered all 26,000 city employees back to the office, five days a week, starting Monday.

A judge's ruling Friday evening dashed the hopes of thousands of municipal workers who had asked the city for a delay.

Their public employee unions have argued that such a dramatic change in work arrangements must be negotiated. But Judge Sierra Thomas Street on Friday sided with city officials, who have maintained that changing work locations is "a matter of managerial prerogative."

Concerns about birds in offices, child care and work-life balance

Local union leaders with the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees have pressed their case in testimony that at times bordered on the absurd.

At a raucous city council hearing last month, union leaders warned that city buildings weren't ready to receive workers, in particular the Municipal Services Building, where birds have taken up residence.

"No one should have to come to work with birds flying all around," said Bobby Davis, senior adviser to District Council 33.

"I want to really say the other word, but I'll just tell you in begins with an S and ends with a T, dropping all over you during the course of a day."

Others pointed to the unfortunate timing of the mandate for working parents.

"July 15th, in the middle of the summer, people are scrambling, trying to find childcare, trying to find summer camps," said April Gigetts, president of District Council 47.

City workers spoke about personal health struggles and family caregiving responsibilities that make working on-site untenable. They testified about how hybrid work has allowed them to serve the city while also serving their families, taking children to medical appointments and being present for elders.

The unions pushed for a pause until their grievances are formally heard, a process that is still ongoing.

But Parker remained unmoved. At a press conference Wednesday, the mayor said her goal was "to create a more visible and accessible government, a city government that our residents can see, touch and feel."

According to the city, about 80% of its employees already work on-site, full-time.

Hybrid or in-office, for some employers it's about fairness

What's unfolding in Philadelphia is just the latest flashpoint in the debate over where and how people work best. Four years after the pandemic shuttered offices practically overnight, the divide seems to be widening, as employers take divergent paths.

While some companies have permanently settled into hybrid schedules, a growing number of others, including Wall Street banks, Boeing, and UPS, have asked employees to be on-site every day.

Increasingly, leaders are raising equity and solidarity in making their case.

"By adopting this approach, we recognize the ongoing commitment of our operators and other UPSers who have and continue to work in-person in our facilities five days and sometimes more," UPS told employees in a memo sent earlier this year.

At Philadelphia City Hall this week, Parker likewise recognized a long list of city employees who have never had the ability to work from home: sanitation workers, police officers, firefighters, correctional officers, the water department and others.

"They worked through a global pandemic and made great personal sacrifices for the city," Parker said. "I need us all right now to make a sacrifice for our city."

But some workers have proven they can get the job done from home too

Philadelphia's leaders do not dispute that the city's hybrid employees have been getting the job done.

"The decision... was not driven by a decline in productivity," chief administrative officer Camille Duchaussee told city council members last month, to loud heckling from the roomful of city workers. "The driver for this decision was a leadership philosophy."

After the ruling Friday, Mayor Parker released a statement thanking workers for their service.

"I promised to make our city the safest, cleanest and greenest big city in America, with access to economic opportunity for all. This ruling gets our city one giant step closer to delivering on that promise," she wrote.

But for some, that step may prove too difficult. Several workers have said that if they are forced back to the office five days a week, they’ll look for new jobs elsewhere.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.