If work is going to be done differently, why should work spaces say the same

Yes, federal employees are returning to their offices. No, conditions won't return to normal, whatever that is. At the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service...

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Yes, federal employees are returning to their offices. No, conditions won’t return to normal, whatever that is. At the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, management and union representatives have been trying out different workplace configurations. The president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1923, Anita Autrey spoke with the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Autrey, good to have you on.

Anita Autrey: Thank you. Good morning, Tom.

Tom Temin: So what is going on with CMS? First of all, local 1923 is a really big one, isn’t it?

Anita Autrey: Yes, it is. And CMS is one of the agencies that we represent, and I also work for.

Tom Temin: Give us the timelines here. If you go back to when everyone was forced home because of telework, how have things progressed, and where do we stand now?

Anita Autrey: So we are, remember, it was March 16, 2020, employees were told, hey, get what you can from your desk, your laptops, any equipment, paperwork, whatever you think you need, because we are going into 100% telework status. And we’ve been that way for the past two years or more. We started talking about returning to the workplace. And, you know, during the COVID-19 pandemic, you start making plans. And then I think we had the Delta variant, then that delayed plans, because originally federal agencies, I believe, the White House directed that we started returning to work initially in October of 2021. But obviously, that was delayed. Now we are attentively and when we say return to the workplace, that’s going to be much different. Our return date is May 23, 2022. However, now your official duty station may be your home.

Tom Temin: Interesting. So even the management doesn’t anticipate everyone just en masse coming right back into the office.

Anita Autrey: Not at all. In fact, what they did, the agency looked at all of the employees’ positions throughout the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and decided, hey, is this position qualified for telework? Does it qualify for working remotely inside the geographic area that’s close to your office? Because we have offices across the country. Or does your position qualify for you to work remotely outside of the geographic area? So what will be the most significant change? Initially, there were just 20% of the workforce, teleworking and working from home full time now, which could be from the numbers I’ve looked at 90% to 95% of the workforce may be working remotely or from their homes. So for example, your agency office let’s say you worked in the Baltimore location and say you live in Rehoboth Beach. So if you decided to work from your home there, you would lose your locality pay, because Baltimore locality pay is much higher than Rehoboth Beach because, for example, like a Grade 13 step one would lose 12 to $14,000 a year.

Tom Temin: Oh, real money.

Anita Autrey: Real money, because until that person might say, hey, no, I don’t want to work remotely. I want to telework. And I want to report to the office at least two times in the pay period so that I can retain my locality pay a Baltimore.

Tom Temin: And has the agency amenable to that so far?

Anita Autrey: Yeah, because all of this teleworking, remote work. It’s all voluntary, was the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. It’s been recently updated by OPM (Office of Personnel Management) to reflect now the workplace more.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Anita Autrey. She’s president of AFGE Local 1923, which represents CMS employees. And what about the offices themselves, if only 5% or 10% of the people will be coming in regularly? Or maybe everyone will come in once in a while, but everyone won’t be there at once at any given time. What are they talking about with configuration, and physically what they’re gonna do with all that space?

Anita Autrey: It’s very interesting. And I think change is exciting. So we have one component at our headquarters, and they’re doing what they call the big cleanup. And this is a pilot. So those employees are coming in and removing all of their personal effects throwing away kind of whatever it is that needs to be tossed. And the agency is doing this pilot in order to see how it’s going to recycle, throw away, what’s needed for employees to do that. Because ultimately, the workplace is going to be redesigned. So it’s going to be well you call it you have hotelling, employees can just come in and what you can do you have now go online. And let’s say you want to come in, I want to meet you at the office. So we would see, OK, what workspace is available? We look and there was a system that’s been designed and we login, oh, well, we’ll take this little hub over there. It has what we need there doesn’t have a printer, that’s it have the Telus phone system, we can socially distance.Or do we want an open area? Or can we just go in and sit together? Because the cafeteria is being remodeled. So it’s going to just be well, do we need to collaborate with a group? And you know, so it’s gonna be a completely different workplace.

Tom Temin: By the way, how many employees are involved? How large is 1923?

Anita Autrey: Now 1923 is the largest local in the federation. So we represent about 30,000 employees just with all the components that we represent. But currently, we probably just have maybe right around 5 or 6000 dues paying employees. Now at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, we’re a smaller agency. So overall, I think total including management and everyone, it’s about 5,000 employees, and we probably have 1,200 or so dues paying members.

Tom Temin: And these negotiations for the office configuration and for telework policy, allowing people, 90% of people to mostly telework or remote work, how would you characterize the negotiations? Has management generally been trying to work with you? And is it been positive?

Anita Autrey: It was a tumultuous 2021. I will say that, and in spite of getting a new administration, you’ll see that it didn’t happen overnight, as we thought it might, you know, it’s kind of like, hey, we’ve got a new president, and he’s pro labor. And, you know, it’s gonna be Kumbaya, no. So what I did, and the agency, we needed to negotiate the return to work. And it ended up turning into a massive kind of agreement. I’ve got it here in front of me. And the agency agreed to reopen our contract, in order to let say renegotiate some of the things that we lost during the last administration.

Tom Temin: Such as official time and office space?

Anita Autrey: Correct, official time. And then there were just other subtle things like, even though partnership ended some years ago, we always, you know, within and it came back under this president, but we had always worked cooperatively at CMS, but in this last contract, they would direct it, you know, to, they even eliminated our cooperation committee. So we’re putting that back, it was just a real interesting time. And we survived it. So we’re looking at expanding workplace flexibilities for employees, and looking at the hours of work. For example, during the pandemic, employees were allowed to work from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. You know, the children were home or parents, it takes time. And then another part of this, you know, with the COVID-19 testing, and the vaccine mandate, and the up and down. And so just recently, we’ve gotten some new guidance from the department because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, it’s one of the operating divisions under the Department of Health and Human Services. So we got the new testing requirements for the unvaccinated. The management sent me, you know, a proposal and I had a meeting with them on Monday. And I say, wait a minute, the vaccinated federal employees when they go to other federal buildings, they’re considered visitors, and they’ll need to be tested. And that was something that management failled to realize, oh, wait a minute, we’ve got to develop a protocol with that. So employees will be given smart cards that are required to be tested, and it will have up to a $750 limit. So they can be tested, I think three days before they you have to have a negative test before you report to the office. So we’ll just be developing that program where to get tests, what tests are acceptable, you know, it’s just so much and then OK, oh, tomorrow, new law may come out. Well, you could say I’m really involved. I dream about this stuff sometimes.

Tom Temin: I can imagine. But it sounds like the big issues are largely under control, though, that people don’t have to go back to the office, that the office configuration and availability of workspaces is being worked out with this application. So it sounds like you’re almost there.

Anita Autrey: We are, you know, each day the agency will develop a new system to accommodate you know, the changes and then they’ll do a demonstration with me. And I’ll have a team of folks and we’ll look at it. Some of the regional offices, I know in New York and San Francisco, they are moving to other spaces. And in our Dallas regional office, I think someone bought the building. So we’re having, because not everyone is in a federal building some are in privately owned buildings. And there were changes made during the pandemic. And so we’re dealing with those, you know, at each location. Some of the security and screening measures and, you know, so it’s just a lot happening everywhere, and then tracking the COVID levels in the areas in medium high, you know, and then determining what we do.

Tom Temin: Well, sounds like you’ve got it largely under control. And I think probably your members are saying I’m glad Anita is in charge here.

Anita Autrey: Oh, they love me. I’m not, you know, I don’t want to brag. But I keep them very informed. I get their input. And that’s been real helpful especially when I have parents when we’re doing the negotiations because they try to take in their children back. And so the parents can tell me, oh, how much the test really cost? And that’s how we got the 150 because one of the parents said no, sometimes he couldn’t wait for the test that wherever, so they just go out and purchase their own. So I do get a lot of input from, you know, people that are unlike me, and you know, that’s really important.

Tom Temin: And Anita Autrey is president of AFGE Local 1923, which represents CMS employees. Thanks so much for joining me.

Anita Autrey: Oh, you’re welcome. My pleasure, Tom. Have a wonderful day.

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