The president’s recent executive orders have revived a stalled collective bargaining process at the Health and Human Services Department — one that the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) said had practically slowed to a standstill over the past three years.
HHS in June shared both a schedule for bargaining and the proposals it plans to bring to the table with NTEU, the union said.
HHS’ bargaining proposals exclude 13 previously-agreed-to articles in NTEU’s current contract, which detail negotiated policies on telework, alternative work schedules, transit subsidies, performance awards and appraisals and reassignments and details, according to the union.
Another HHS bargaining proposal suggests the union start paying rent on the agency office space that it currently occupies, NTEU National President Tony Reardon said.
“The office space we are entitled to under our agreements is the result of collective bargaining, agreed to in the give and take of contract negotiations,” he said in a statement. “It isn’t ‘provided.’ NTEU bargains for office space to ensure that employees have a private area to discuss their workplace matters with NTEU representatives and that personnel documents and other materials are safely stored and secure.”
NTEU said it hasn’t received a specific date that its representatives must vacate HHS property, but OPM told agencies with “expired” contracts to begin implementing the terms of the president’s executive orders by July 9.
When asked about its negotiations with NTEU, an agency spokesman said, “HHS is working with employees and their union representation to improve the operations of the department with the aim of making the federal government a better place to work and better able to deliver the services to the American people.”
NTEU’s existing agreement with HHS dates back to October 2010 and was last revised in March 2014. As many federal unions have and will continue to argue in the coming weeks, NTEU’s existing agreement says that it will “remain in full force and effect until three years from its effective date” and will automatically be renewed year after year unless it’s reopened.
NTEU approached HHS to reopening its contract 3 years ago
NTEU said it approached HHS about reopening its contract back in July 2015. The two parties spent two years negotiating the ground rules for contract discussions but couldn’t agree. The union took the case to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, a body of presidentially-appointed members who resolve labor-management disputes. The panel imposed ground rules on HHS and NTEU, but the union said the negotiation process has still stalled.
It was after the president signed executive orders on collective bargaining and official time that NTEU said HHS revived previously stalled conversations about a new contract.
To be clear, both the union and agency still have a long process ahead of them. Both parties must negotiate over HHS’ bargaining proposals. NTEU has submitted its own, which include recommendations on paid parental leave, incentive awards and a new student loan repayment program.
But if HHS’ forthcoming agreement doesn’t include articles on telework or performance appraisals, for example, NTEU believes it would no longer be able to bargain over these issues. The agency could make changes to these programs unilaterally, the union said.
In a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, Reardon encouraged the agency to approach forthcoming bargaining sessions with a different tone.
“Labor-management relations at HHS can — and should — return to a more respectful and professional endeavor,” Reardon wrote in a July 5 letter. “To that end, I request that we meet as soon as possible so we can together put HHS and NTEU back on the path of creating a workplace that benefits the agency, the employees and the taxpayers we serve.”
Though it’s still early in the collective bargaining process for both parties, HHS’ proposals appear to resemble the document the Education Department ultimately presented to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) earlier this year.
Education opted to implement its own document, which excluded articles on telework, disability accommodations and performance that were part of the previous contract the agency signed with the American Federation of Government Employees.
From Education’s perspective, this document replaces the agency’s prior contract with AFGE. But for the union, Education’s document doesn’t carry the weight of a new contract, because AFGE did not agree to it.
Since then, Education has announced its plans to change its current telework policy. The agency is giving employees until Oct. 1 to prepare to work at least four days a week in the office.
Federal unions are beginning to learn how other agencies plan to enforce the president’s executive orders.