Sour labor relations continue to dot the government

The Biden administration has a lot of labor itches to scratch, but they're not totally in control.

For a group that says it’s committed to the federal workforce, the Biden administration sure is saddled with some lousy labor relations situations.

You can’t really blame the administration, though. A couple of long-festering labor-management issues lie only partially within the White House’s control. Specifically, it needs Senate confirmation of a few specific nominees to settle things down.

They only number 580 federal employees, but the Justice Department’s immigration judges are upset. The Federal Labor Relations Authority just reaffirmed its 2020 ruling that the judges are management employees and therefore not to be included in a bargaining unit. According to the Association of Immigration Judges president Mimi Tsankov, that amounts to de-certification of the union, part of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

I’m not taking sides, but rather pointing out that the situation shows how reality and a given administration’s philosophy can shift out of phase, when the Senate is slow to consider and vote on nominees.

The FLRA vote was 2-1. The dissenter was the Democratic chairman, Ernest DuBester. He would restore the judges’ bargaining rights. The votes to decertify came from the two Republican members, Colleen Duffy Kiko and Jim Abbott, who were appointed by President Trump. A nominee from the Biden administration has been put forth that would replace Abbott, making the Authority 2-1 Democratic. But there’s no sign the Senate is hurrying to vote on that particular nomination.

This all plays out when the judges face a mountain of a backlog of immigration cases, 1.6 million right now and growing daily. That’s approaching 3,000 cases per judge, several years of work each if they did nothing all day but deal with the backlog.

Moreover, the position of the Justice Department itself, pursuant to Biden administration goals, has reversed. Attorney General Merrick Garland wants the judges to have the bargaining power, and petitioned the FLRA to that effect.

Equally crabby is the situation at the Social Security Administration. There, the commissioner’s chair itself is filled by an acting. One union president said the acting commish, Kilolo Kijakazi, has failed to redo a contract the American Federation of Government Employees says was foisted on it, with affirmation from the FLRA, by the Trump administration.

Biden and Kijakazi “had promised a new era in paper relations. We have not seen that,” Council 220 President Ralph de Juliis told me.

Trump’s commish, Andrew Saul, mostly eliminated telework for employees who do casework with the public. They’re teleworking now, of course, but under pandemic emergency rules. Now that SSA employees are returning to their offices, the situation reverts back to the mostly-no-telework policy. De Juliis said agents have been providing faster and more abundant appointments by interacting with the public electronically, compared to what agents can offer in person.

Kijakazi can’t serve forever as acting. In fact, she’s got until next Friday. If appointed to be commissioner, she’d have to resign. Therefore, Social Security may not have a permanent commissioner for months at that, optimistically. So the labor relations will continue to fester.

Here again, there’s a bigger problem, namely, service issues at SSA. Published reports are coming out all over. They’re getting attention on Capitol Hill, with pointed questions coming to Kijakazi.

Shouldn’t management and line employees be putting their heads together on fixing service delivery, in the age of customer experience, rather than knocking heads or ignoring one another?

The Merit Systems Protection Board presents another problem. Not exactly a labor relations issue, the seemingly permanent absence of members of the board itself is, well, a minor scandal. Recall that the board has gone more than five years without a quorum. The last remaining member, Mark Robbins, left nearly three years ago. The pile of cases to be decided by the board, if one is ever seated, has grown to 3,600.

The Biden administration has three members under nomination. The Senate seems to be ignoring them, even though they have committee approval. This is a mystery.

Some employment attorneys have argued there’s no need for the MSPB. Federal employees should have the same dispute adjudication avenues as employees in any industry, they say. Maybe, but that’s an argument for another time. A creature of civil service reform of the 1970s, the MSPB exists. Its staff continues to work on reports and data. Its administrative judges continue to hear and decide cases. While it exists, it and by extension the non-union employees that turn to it for help deserves adult treatment. That means confirming those appointees.

One hopeful sign on the federal union front: the Department of Veterans Affairs and its big AFGE National Council said they’ll return to the bargaining table in March. They’ll discuss 12 articles over which they’d butted heads during the Trump administration.

A final observation on the various bi-party boards and commissions, such as FLRA, MSBP or even the FCC. The members do disagree on matters, sometimes widely. But they generally maintain a high degree of human relations. I’m told the three former MSBP people of the two parties still, to this day, talk and occasionally get together socially.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Robert O’Shaughnessy

In 1896, the winner of the first modern Olympics marathon stopped in the middle of the race for a glass of wine at his uncle’s tavern.

Source: NPR

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