AFGE: We’d rather fight than quit, and other mysteries

Federal employee unions seem to be aflame over multiple indignities, some with good reason but at least one makes you wonder.

The American Federation of Government Employees has filed a grievance over a policy announced Wednesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA in June banned smoking in designated areas by patients, visitors, vendors, contractors and volunteers. Everyone, that is, but employees.

My eyebrows rose an inch to realize VA allowed smoking anywhere at all as late as this year.

Yesterday, VA extended the ban to include employees, including bargaining unit members. However the AFGE’s 2008 master agreement contains a butt but. Article 43 in Section 11 compels VA to provide bargaining unit employees designated smoking areas. Wherever practicable, the smoking areas are to be within 35 feet of the entrance to hospitals or office buildings. It’s not clear whether that’s indoors or outdoors.

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To underscore its grievance, the union notes that the master agreement “contains neither a sunset or [sic] reopener clause.”

So there — if VA wants to ban union employees from smoking on its property, it’ll have to negotiate.

AFGE appears to be technically right here. Maybe they could negotiate smoking breaks, and employees would have to go across the street instead. Not a great option for, say, January in Fargo, North Dakota.

Not ever having been a cigarette smoker — only the highly irregular cigar — I never took moral umbrage at reasonable smoking or smokers. It’s hard, though, to argue other than that pretty much every public location is better for being smoke-free. Designated areas always made sense to me. Until recently, airports and Amtrak trains had sealed areas, vented directly outside, where you could smoke.

My solution for AGFE and VA is this: VA agrees to figure out something for the smokers, and AFGE agrees to launch a quit-smoking campaign.

USDA buyouts less than expected

More troubling on the employee relations front is the Agriculture Department cutting its buyout offer to employees of two small bureaus who’d rather quit than relocate. Good idea or bad, the relocation to Kansas City of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture proceed, pushed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue.

USDA initially offered a $25,000 buyout to those who’d rather leave the government. But so many said they would, that USDA officials said there was only enough money to offer $10,000. USDA said the amount “changed,” not being quite able to say “reduced” or “lowered.”

You could say the department didn’t have to offer anything. It wasn’t looking for a reduction in force, and anyone who cared to take relocation to Kansas City could do so. Still, USDA showed chintziness. It feels like bait-and-switch, despite the original “limited number” language used in the June memo announcing the early outs. If USDA had $1 million of authority for buyouts, it should have said “first 40,” or gone for a little reprogramming, given how much psychic and real energy department brass have already invested in this relocation.

A final human resources note, and a more positive one. Federal News Network’s Nicole Ogrysko reported that the Federal Cybersecurity Reskilling Academy has had some initial success. Here too, demand outstripped capacity. Some 1,500 feds applied for 30 openings in the first session. They did well in exams by the SANS Institute, which provided the training. The reskilled ones aren’t ready to become chief information security officers, but at least one said she’s considering a career switch.

Bureaucracies, any bureaucracy, resist change. But, as the saying goes, if one person can’t make any change, neither can a million. If the reskilling academy can send one or two or 30 people in a direction useful to both them and the government, good for it.

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