AFGE advances grievance, claiming HUD preemptively denied remote work applications

The American Federation of Government Employees is taking the next steps in the grievance process to push back against the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s remote work policy.

The union and the agency previously reached an agreement to let telework-eligible employees work remotely after getting a manager’s approval. But after the negotiations were settled, AFGE said HUD leaders set a workplace policy precedent before considering individual employees’ remote work applications.

Salvatore Viola, president of...

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The American Federation of Government Employees is taking the next steps in the grievance process to push back against the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s remote work policy.

The union and the agency previously reached an agreement to let telework-eligible employees work remotely after getting a manager’s approval. But after the negotiations were settled, AFGE said HUD leaders set a workplace policy precedent before considering individual employees’ remote work applications.

Salvatore Viola, president of AFGE Council 222, which represents 5,000 HUD employees, said agency leaders excluded more than 90% of the workforce from applying for remote work opportunities.

“Before the employees even went ahead and applied for the remote work, as per our contract, HUD sent out a preemptive email saying that regardless of [employees’] ability to work remotely, they will not be able to, and they have to come into the office at least twice per pay period,” Viola said in an interview with Federal News Network.

After AFGE filed a grievance in June over the disagreement, the union invoked arbitration on July 27, claiming that leaders at HUD went against the previous agreement.

The arbitration process will involve a neutral, third-party arbitrator, who will hear the case and decide whether or not HUD violated its collective bargaining agreement. The process can take anywhere from six months to three years, AFGE said, partly depending on if the parties decide to raise the case to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

HUD leadership returned many employees that had been working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic back to the office this spring, after 26 months of maximized remote work.

On May 24, HUD sent an email to employees saying despite the office reentry announcement, they can still apply for Flexiplace, an application to get eligibility for telework.

“As agreed to in HUD’s supplement with AFGE, eligibility for Flexiplace arrangements — including remote work, mobile work and telework — is being determined ‘based on objective, equitable guidelines, function-based criteria and shall not be arbitrary and capricious,’” a spokesperson for HUD wrote in an email to Federal News Network.

The spokesperson said the agency is committed maintaining to a flexible workplace that balances the needs of employees, the department and the public.

“HUD staff, bargaining unit and non-bargaining unit alike, are now allowed unprecedented workplace flexibilities that allow for flexible start times, ‘Flexidays,’ and the maximum approved telework days per OPM guidance,” the spokesperson wrote. “As a result, most HUD employees are now participating in workplace flexibilities in ways they were unable to do two years ago prior to the pandemic.”

In response to HUD’s email announcement in May, though, AFGE filed a grievance on June 8, stating that agency managers denied remote work for the vast majority of HUD employees, and that the agency acted in “bad faith.”

“HUD went through the motions of allowing AFGE bargaining unit employees to apply for remote work; however, all program offices except the small organizations of the Departmental Enforcement Center and Single Family Housing Quality Assurance Division again cited the preemptive exclusion that the vast majority of AFGE bargaining unit employees’ positions were not eligible for remote work and were only eligible for routine telework,” the grievance stated.

Leaders at HUD then said they denied AFGE’s claims over the Flexiplace applications. In a July 8 letter replying to AFGE’s grievance, the agency said its system for approving or denying Flexiplace applications was objective, and that most applications were being approved. Additionally, HUD said some in-person work was necessary to ensure effective mission delivery.

“For some positions … there is a business need for individuals to regularly be in offices and resume some in-person meetings and collaborations, which build and maintain effective relationships … and ensure efficient operations,” HUD’s letter stated. “Broader and more efficient information sharing and collaboration tends to happen most efficiently through in-person communications as opposed to remotely, and constitutes a business need for some in-office presence.”

AFGE wrote in an August 9 press release that the decision to move employees back to in-person work didn’t focus on the right factors.

“HUD’s top leadership prefers to manage based on employee attendance in the office rather than focusing on productivity and reducing office space,” the AFGE press release stated.

Ricardo Miranda, AFGE’s chief steward for Council 222, told Federal News Network that during the pandemic, much of HUD’s workforce was operating fully remotely, and performed duties well, with limited disruptions. In fact, in a 2020 report on full-time telework during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 78% of HUD employees who responded to a survey said teleworking had no, or only slight, impact on day-to-day operations.

Image from HUD OIG report: Telework Impact on HUD’s Operations Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic

HUD employees have also previously expressed some dissatisfaction about workplace flexibilities. In the third-round results of a governmentwide pulse survey from the Office of Management and Budget on April 28, HUD scored poorly across several questions. Notably, when asked if they would take a job elsewhere if it offered more workplace flexibilities and remote options, 62.6% of HUD respondents said yes — the highest of any agency in the survey.

“HUD continues to be committed to balancing workplace flexibilities with ensuring that we can achieve our mission effectively, efficiently and equitably on behalf of the people we serve,” the HUD spokesperson wrote. “HUD, just like other federal agencies and employers across all sectors, is working to determine the right path forward.”

Viola and Miranda said during the pandemic, for the first time in several years, HUD was able to hire more people to the agency than the number of employees who retired. That trend will only continue, they said, if HUD expands its remote work policy to more employees.

“This is the wave of the future,” Miranda said. “It’s going to help us recruit the new workforce of the future. Younger generations are looking for remote work opportunities.”

“We know not everyone can get or do remote work. We don’t expect that. However, we expect far more than 5% of our workforce to be eligible for remote work,” Viola said. “Remote work promotes the true efficiency of the government to meet the mission of the agency.”

AFGE is now taking further steps in the grievance process to take action against HUD. After initially seeking arbitration, the union is now in the process of finding a third-party arbitrator, Viola and Miranda told Federal News Network. Once an arbitrator is selected, the case would be heard within 120 days.

 

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