After years of contentious negotiations, HHS, NTEU agree to labor relations reset

The Department of Health and Human Services is the latest agency to announce a reset in labor relations with its union, following a Biden administration executi...

The Department of Health and Human Services has dropped its previous collective bargaining practices and agreed to negotiate a new contract with the National Treasury Employees Union, the latest to announce a relationship reset with its agency.

HHS will recognize the collective bargaining agreement it signed with NTEU in 2010 and updated in 2014 until the two parties can negotiate a new contract, the department and union said Monday.

In agreeing to drop the old proposals it developed under the previous administration and start fresh on a new contract, HHS has essentially complied with President Joe Biden’s January executive order, which restored collective bargaining and formally repealed three policies from his predecessor.

Both HHS and NTEU have agreed to pursue a global settlement of all pending litigation, and the two parties will resume labor-management forum meetings, which were eliminated under the previous administration.

In a July 29 joint letter to HHS employees, both the department and union described the new agreement as a “fresh start.”

“We recognize labor and management working together creates a better HHS, which in turn creates a better work environment for you and further promotes the well-being of the American public,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon and Cheryl Campbell, the department’s assistant secretary for administration, said. “The success of HHS is driven by an engaged and productive workforce. Employees, represented by their union, need to be supported in their efforts to carry out the HHS mission and, to that end, employees’ involvement in NTEU is welcomed and encouraged.”

The union’s challenges with the department began back in 2018, after former President Donald Trump signed a trio of executive orders cutting official time and collective bargaining.

HHS offered bargaining proposals to NTEU, which changed negotiated policies on telework, alternative work schedules, transit subsidies, performance awards and appraisals, and reassignments and details.

The two parties attempted to negotiate, but HHS declared an impasse. The Federal Service Impasses Panel weighed in on the bargaining proposals in 2019, largely rubberstamping the department’s proposed contract articles. The impasse panel decision set the stage for HHS to begin implementing new policies on telework, leave and official time, a pattern that several other agencies embraced and adopted in their collective bargaining negotiations as well.

NTEU, however, said it never recognized those HHS proposals as a true bargaining agreement, and it filed unfair labor practice charges with the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Eventually, arbitrators found HHS engaged in bad-faith bargaining, and NTEU has been waiting for new departmental leadership to reset labor relations and start fresh on a new contract.

“All we’ve ever sought is good faith negotiations over a new contract that protects a host of important employee benefits, including telework and alternative work schedules, which have become even more crucial during the pandemic,” Reardon said Monday in a statement. “The 14,000 HHS employees we represent around the country have committed themselves to public health and we share their desire to help the agency meet its important mission.”

HHS did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

“We are excited to embark on this journey together and confident we will establish a shared vision for our future by creating a balanced approach for employee and supervisory interaction,” Reardon and Campbell wrote. “At this critical time in the nation’s history, it is imperative that we develop a strong relationship between HHS and NTEU.”

Since Biden rolled back the prior administration’s orders, multiple agencies have announced plans to restore official time and collective bargaining with their unions in recent months.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the American Federation of Government Employees agreed to a sweeping settlement, which resolved more than a dozen pending legal challenges and established a process for union representatives to receive compensation for lost official time over the last few years.

VA also announced plans to recognize the agreement it signed with the union back in 2011, and the department has plans to negotiate a new contract with AFGE starting next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency agreed to revert back to its previous contracts with both AFGE and NTEU.

Education, AFGE haven’t resolved labor relations disputes

But efforts to drop pending litigation and restore labor relations haven’t been smooth sailing at every agency.

AFGE has 14 outstanding unfair labor practice charges open with the Education Department, which the union initiated between 2018 and 2020. It filed its first complaint after the department imposed new telework changes and cut official time for union representatives, the first major cabinet agency to do so under the previous administration.

AFGE has maintained that it never agreed to such changes, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority found Education bargained in bad faith back in 2018. But the FLRA lacked the authority to enforce its findings because it hasn’t had a general counsel throughout much of the Trump administration.

FLRA last week consolidated that charge and 13 others into one complaint and ordered a hearing in November before an administrative judge. The charges involved telework and performance management changes, as well as organizational adjustments in the chief information officer’s office and regional office relations.

In all 14 charges, the authority said Education either failed to engage in good-faith bargaining or violated other provisions in labor-management relations law.

Both the department and the union can avoid the hearing if they agree to settle and resolve outstanding labor relations litigation on their own.

“Unless current department leaders come to the table and settle these outstanding labor violations, we will need to move forward with this hearing so the FLRA can order the agency to undo these unlawful actions and restore workers’ collective bargaining rights,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said Monday in a statement.

An Education spokesman didn’t have a comment about the FLRA ruling but said the department is “committed to its ongoing efforts to improve labor-management relations.”

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