Former directors of the Federal Labor Relations Authority say the agency’s current plan to close two of its seven regional offices would undo any progress the federal sector has made with its labor unions in recent years.
Eight former regional directors and members of the Senior Executive Service wrote to leadership on both the House and Senate oversight committees. Their letters, which Federal News Radio obtained, argue the decision to close regional offices in Boston and Dallas would reduce FRLA’s “credibility and effectiveness.”
“This decision, if accepted, will adversely affect not only the efficient performance of that agency’s mission, but will also negatively impact the very significant progress that has been made in recent years to reduce reliance on confrontational labor relations in the federal sector, while also encouraging alternative methods of dispute resolution,” the former directors wrote.
FLRA members must first vote on the agency’s decision to close regional offices. Citing the Trump administration’s government reorganization initiative, the agency described in its 2019 budget request a plan to close the Boston and Dallas regional offices by the end of the current fiscal year.
But the former directors say having FLRA offices and staff located near federal employees in the field is invaluable and more efficient.
“Regularly scheduled regional training presentations became an established resource to both labor and management representatives, many of whom could not travel to Washington or other distant sites,” the letters read. “Feedback surveys prepared by attendees immediately after each regional training program clearly demonstrated that the parties valued these opportunities to meet and interact with regional staff and gain a clearer understanding of the investigative process. Moreover, having regional offices located closer to the actual work sites allowed FLRA agents to develop working relationships with the labor and management community, facilitating communication and trust during the investigative process.”
It’s especially important to have FLRA expertise in the field, regional directors argued, because most federal employees have little knowledge of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute and the legal process. Rank-and-file workers may be more likely to open up to FLRA professionals in person than during a conversation over the phone.
Shedding regional positions, the former directors fear, would move the FLRA closer to an “undesirable teleservice center approach to collective bargaining.”
More than 445,000 federal employees live in the Boston and Dallas regions, the directors said.
But Boston and Dallas, the FLRA said, both historically take in the lowest number of cases.
Closing these offices would directly affect 16 employees, nine in Boston and seven in Dallas, according to the FLRA’s fiscal 2019 budget justification to Congress. The agency in total would eliminate five positions, and it would offer all impacted employees a reassignment to another regional office or to headquarters.
FLRA will also offer Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA) incentives, and the Office of Personnel Management has already approved them. Employees who accept VERA should retire by Sept. 30, 2018, which is the same day that it plans to close the Boston and Dallas regional offices, the justification said.
“Vacancies that arise from VERA may create additional slots for Boston and Dallas employees to land,” the agency said. “Because the agency is not attempting to reduce employees from its rolls through this reorganization, it has determined that Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) authority is not appropriate, and it will not be requesting that authority.”
Though 16 employees may not sound like a significant impact, FLRA is small to begin with, and it had about 100 employees in fiscal 2017, the former directors said. In addition, the agency still lacks a general counsel, who would typically oversee regional operations, the letter said.
FLRA has already made efforts to cut costs and staff in recent years. FLRA once had nine regional offices when Congress authorized the creation of the agency in 1978. Since then, it’s continued to close offices and give up office space, the directors said.
FLRA said in its 2019 budget justification it’s confident it can continue to meet its mission, despite recent attempts to keep some vacant positions unfilled. During the president’s temporary hiring freeze in 2017, FLRA leadership “took a hard look at every vacancy” and decided to leave 12 out of 21 vacant positions unfilled last year.
The administration’s relationship with federal unions has been tenuous over the past year, particularly in light of the president’s decision to disband a formal advisory panel designed to create and foster working partnerships between labor and management. The Office of Personnel Management told agencies last December to abolish labor-management forums or otherwise justify the costs and benefits of keeping such partnerships.
The Education Department recently decided to implement its own terms after ending negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees. The union hasn’t agreed to the department’s terms, and the document excludes 36 previously-agreed-to articles that describes the agency’s policies on telework, performance management and reasonable accommodations.
AFGE has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the FLRA.