New AFGE chapter covering feds in Europe gains traction

For years, thousands of Defense Department civilian employees serving overseas were told they did not — and could not — have union representation. Now, the largest federal employee union is trying to change that narrative.

The American Federation of Government Employees expanded eligibility to about 10,000 civilian employees serving overseas in Europe, under one of the union’s chapters, District 14.

“Some employees are told that those programs don’t exist here, which is not true. You’re a federal employee — it doesn’t matter where you’re at. We have unions all over DoD in the United States. That’s one of the things we hope that we can repair, and hopefully move forward from there,” said Javier Soto, a legal rights attorney for AFGE District 14, in an interview with Federal News Network.

AFGE District 14 also covers feds in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Most of the newly eligible employees are living and working in Germany, and many are employed at the Defense Health Agency. Most of these DoD employees work at military hospitals, child care centers, commissaries and exchanges. But membership is open to federal employees across Europe at any agency not already part of an AFGE local, and who are part of the General Schedule, Wage Grade or Non-Appropriated Fund pay systems.

Union leaders in Germany have already added a small handful — about 40 employees, to date — to the new chapter, and that number is growing by the day, said Mark Cox, president of AFGE Local 14 in Europe, and federal employee in DoD’s human resource plans and operations office.

“I get stopped in the hallway at least once a day,” Cox said in an interview. “For some, I was pretty surprised that they approached me to say that they’re interested in joining. Our numbers have gone up, and they will continue to go up. We’re getting a lot of interested government employees who are signing up.”

Cox was one of the new union chapter’s inaugural members. He has been stationed in Germany since 2018.

“I’ve been waiting over 30 years to get to Europe,” said Cox. “My grandmother was German. As a kid growing up in Detroit, she would always talk about Germany. That’s one of the main reasons I joined the military when I was 17.”

No clear path to resolve disputes

An initially two-to-three-year rotational program at the Defense Health Agency has now lengthened to typically seven-year stays overseas for many employees. It’s a primary reason AFGE is looking to expand its presence in Europe, said Peter Winch, special assistant to the national vice president at AFGE District 14. Extended residencies overseas mean employees need ways to protect themselves for the long run.

The lack of union representation has been a sticking point for many of the overseas employees, often leaving them without a clear path to resolve issues that arise with management.

“People were reaching out to us for representation. They needed help. That’s why we stepped up to the plate — to be able to help them,” said Ottis Johnson, Jr., AFGE’s national vice president for District 14.

AFGE said a common issue for civilian DoD employees is “bait-and-switch,” a tactic where management offers one job to an employee who agrees to go overseas, only for that employee to be told they would be working in a different position once they arrived.

“This is their first assignment in an overseas location, where they don’t speak the language, they don’t have family and friends to help them,” Cox said. “If they show up, and they’re placed in a job that they didn’t apply for, that just adds even more stress to their experience.”

The “bait-and-switch” from management is causing some staff to leave as well.

“One of the individuals … ended up resigning completely from government,” Cox said. “That’s a huge loss. He was a veteran. He had over 20 years of active duty service. He retired from the Army and he brought those skill sets back to the government as a civilian. He had a lot to offer.”

One of the goals for AFGE, Cox said, will be to inform and educate management on knowledge gaps where they may not be familiar with civilian employment law. He said that may help stop reassignments for civilian DoD employees.

Aside from “bait-and-switch,” employees have also raised concerns about limited days off, or working many days in a row without a break.

Despite being concerned about the issues with management, employees often choose not to speak up.

“We’re afraid of reprisal. It’s a real issue,” Soto, who is stationed in Germany, said. “From everybody that calls me, I would say the number one issue I have on my list here. Reprisal.”

“If you speak up, [management] will find a way to send you home. And they will not extend your tour,” Winch said.

Frustrations with missing locality pay

There have also been concerns from employees around locality pay, which is a percentage-based pay boost, determined by work location, and given to federal employees on the General Schedule.

For some overseas employees, it’s no longer an issue. Federal employees in the Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas (DETO) program, mostly State Department employees, now receive locality pay equivalent to the Washington, D.C. locality pay area.

But most federal employees working overseas do not receive locality pay. Instead, overseas DoD civilian employees get a post allowance, which is a stipend to help cover expenses for those living in areas where the cost of living is substantially higher than it is in Washington, D.C. The post allowance amount is a flat rate, determined by the family size, basic salary and location, and the pay is not taxable.

Still, AFGE said the inability for a post allowance to count toward an employee’s pension is an issue the union wants to address, and one that it hears about repeatedly from DoD civilian employees.

“The other issue that’s been brought up to me is that post allowance is discretionary. It varies by location, it varies by service,” Soto said. “There’s a difference there in how Americans are being treated and we’re not sure why there is a difference, other than that it’s highly discretionary.”

Where does AFGE go from here?

Because the chapter is so new, AFGE said for the time being, the focus will be on resolving individual issues that arise from union members with management.

“We don’t have a negotiated grievance procedure in place yet, but that would be our ultimate aim,” Winch told The Federal Drive.

Regardless of the issue at hand, AFGE said its efforts will focus largely on bringing management into the conversation.

“This isn’t about us versus them,” Soto said. “We’re trying to work with management, and we’re trying to get the mission accomplished. We’re trying to help make the work environment much better so that the work can get done … We’re hoping that we can make a difference for everybody — management, the mission and the employees.”

The chapter’s growth is slow but steady. Soon after Letrice Titus decided to join the union, three others immediately signed up with her.

“Within a day, they were like, ‘Really? Give me the link to sign up,’” said Titus, who is now vice president of AFGE Local 14, and an employee in DoD’s Family Advocacy Program.

“Leadership tends to treat civilians the way they may treat military service members,” Titus added. “[My focus] for the civilian federal employees is to talk to these leaders in the sense that it’s a benefit for both the employees and for the leadership. If we work together, then we can address some issues and hopefully come to some good resolutions.”

Once the union chapter becomes large enough, AFGE said it plans to petition the Federal Labor Relations Authority for formal recognition. FLRA’s legal minimum to petition for an election is 30% of eligible employees opting to join the chapter. Winch said AFGE hopes to meet that 30% minimum later this year.

If FLRA approves the petition, then more formal grievance and arbitration procedures will be available to employees in the union.

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