Telecommuting raises unions' cottage-industry hackles

Telecommuting arouses stalwart opposition from unions. The AFL-CIO has called for a ban on it. And so has the 780,000-member Service Employees International Union. It's not the Randy Raymonds of the world that labor frets about - it's the more vulnerable clerical workers.

''We're worried that as the phenomenon increases, there will be an undermining of conditions for office workers,'' says Jackie Ruff, executive director of District 925, an offshoot of the ''9-to-5'' clerical organization.

Ms. Ruff cites a paper presented at a National Academy of Sciences seminar last November as detailing the kind of abuse the union fears. The Wisconsin Physicians Service, a Madison insurance firm, began a home work program in 1979 with 12 workers.

Later, the number doing claims processing (without home computers) swelled to 200. About 100 workers currently work at home. According to the report, the company paid 1 cent above minimum wage, limited work to 19.75 hours, and gave no benefits. ''Inadequate training'' and ''inconsistent supervision'' were also charged.

Critics say the unions are really worried about organizing such far-flung home workers. And battle lines are being drawn on both federal and local fronts.

At the federal level, the outcome of a much-publicized brouhaha over home knitters in Vermont may affect the future of telecommuting. The knitters are violating the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which makes it illegal to manufacture certain apparel at home.

The Labor Department has tried unsuccessfully to lift the restrictions. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the AFL-CIO contend that the lifting of the restrictions would open the door not only to the exploitation of apparel workers but eventually to other kinds of home workers.

The unions' strategy is chilling interest in telecommuting, says Lee Bellinger at the Center on National Labor Policy, in North Springfield, Va., which is coordinating efforts to loosen laws on home work. ''Big business won't invest in this until it's clear their investment won't be nixed by regulations, '' Mr. Bellinger says.

At the local level, old zoning laws that separate commercial and residential areas can be a source of conflict for home workers.

For instance, last year a city official notified Patrick and Leah O'Connor they had violated zoning ordinances in Chicago. Leah was working on a software program for children and Patrick was doing some free-lance writing. The O'Connors complied with the law which stated that only a physician, dentist, lawyer, or clergyman may work at home but only irregularly and not when it means using ''any mechanical or electrical equipment.''

''Some zoning regulations go back 100 years and no one (writing them) would have thought they applied to this,'' says Michael E. Avakian, senior attorney at the Center on National Labor Policy. ''We're not talking about machine shops or assembly lines or trucks rumbling down residential streets. A person working at home has no impact on a community. Their neighbors are never going to know it.''

The center reports that 18 states have laws restricting home work in some way. ''We have our clients check zoning regulations in towns or cities for restrictions on home work. If there are any restrictions, we recommend they contact their local legislators,'' says Marcia M. Kelly, president of Electronic Services Unlimited, a telecommuting research and consulting firm in New York.

Few new zoning laws are being passed, according to Mr. Avakian, but he says union officials are encouraging town councils to enforce some of the old regulations.

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