Federal telework, work-life balance often top issues in collective bargaining

Within federal telework concerns, days spent in the office and hoteling are two issues that have come forward in cases with the Federal Service Impasses Panel.

Recent tensions over federal telework and return-to-office at agencies appear to have impacted yet another part of the federal workforce: impasses in collective bargaining.

The Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP), an independent entity within the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), has found that many recent cases of collective bargaining impasses between agencies and unions derive from disagreements over not only federal telework policies, but work-life balance — the two of which often go hand-in-hand.

“These are some of the hardest issues to resolve through mediation,” FSIP Chairman Martin Malin said during an FLRA town hall Wednesday. “What we’re finding is that a lot of employees liked being 100% remote, and the agency wants them back working on-site.”

FSIP has a very narrow, defined role, Malin said,  but generally, the panel helps agencies and federal unions resolve disputes that may arise during negotiations.

Within impasses specifically involving federal telework and work-life balance, Malin said there are two main issues.

The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, deals with how many days per pay period agency employees are expected to report to work in person.

The second main issue, Malin said, deals with labor-management disagreements over hoteling, or the practice of sharing office workspaces that aren’t dedicated to a specific employee.

Often, the hoteling issue that comes up between agencies and unions is the threshold an employee would have to come to work in-person to continue having their own personal workstation, rather than resorting to a shared workspace.

Of the eight most recent cases FSIP has issued decisions on, four of them deal with a mix of telework, hoteling and work-life balance.

“I think that is a definite impact of the pandemic and reactions to the pandemic,” Malin said. “Work-life balance, generally, is front and center in federal sector negotiations.”

In one recent example, the National Treasury Employees Union and the Energy Department brought a case before FSIP regarding a proposed policy on hoteling. The dispute particularly related to the number of days employees would have to be in the office to be eligible for a dedicated workspace.

“The parties attempted to hammer out the threshold number of days an employee would have to be physically present within their office space in order to maintain a dedicated office,” FSIP said in its case decision. “This disagreement came to a head in February 2023 with the parties unable to make movement on this topic.”

Another case the panel recently oversaw dealt with the number of telework days for employees as part of a work pilot at the Federal Election Commission. The dispute between the agency and NTEU pertained not only to the number of telework days, but also the availability of remote work, office sharing and core days spent on-site.

Much of the current tension over federal telework stems from an April 2023 memo, when the Office of Management and Budget called on agencies to begin increasing in-person work, while maintaining a balance of telework and remote work options for federal employees where they make sense.

Since then, the White House has repeatedly urged agency officials to bump up in-person presence for the federal workforce to at least 50% of the time.

There are currently 10 appointees on the Federal Service Impasses Panel under the Biden administration. The members serve on a part-time basis and don’t require Senate confirmation.

Though there have been different ways of approaching the purpose of the panel throughout different administrations, Malin said he views the current panel as a continuation of the collective bargaining process between labor and management parties.

“We are another step and the final step in your bargaining process — and that affects how we handle the disputes,” Malin said. “We’ve been fortunate to have considerable success in helping you reach agreement a complete your collective bargaining.”

The current panel has resolved 81% of its impasse cases with an agreed-upon resolution between agencies and unions, rather than resorting to adjudication.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    Amelia Brust/Federal News NetworkA visual representation of a telework desk.

    Congress calls for more details on federal telework in 2024 spending package

    Read more
    Congress Speaker

    Federal telework debate escalates as House Republicans push for details

    Read more
    Federal News Radio pinwheel icon

    Telework ‘essential’ to remaining a competitive employer, Interior official tells Congress

    Read more