After years of contentious negotiations, the Department of Health and Human Services has reached a milestone agreement with its union, the National Treasury Employees Union.
Bargaining unit employees at HHS ratified a new five-year contract, two years after HHS and NTEU first agreed to start fresh on collective bargaining. The new contract applies to the department’s more than 16,000 frontline employees that NTEU represents.
The contract has been nearly a decade in the making — the last fully negotiated collective bargaining agreement between HHS and NTEU dates back to 2014. NTEU National President Tony Reardon said it represents a “significant turning point” between the union and the department.
“The agreement … shows that good faith bargaining and fair negotiations can lead to a contract that will benefit the employees and improve their ability to meet the agency’s important missions,” Reardon said in an email statement Monday.
Christina Ballance, executive director in HHS’ National Labor-Employee Relations Office, said the new provisions bring the collective bargaining agreement up to date with the latest benefits and opportunities for employees.
“This is a true change with regard to how we’re going to move forward,” Ballance said in an interview with Federal News Network. “This new collective bargaining agreement will allow us to reset the relationship and to work closer together in the future.”
The contract solidifies up to eight days per pay period of telework for eligible employees and adds occasional telework options for other employees in certain circumstances. Some employees will also be eligible for remote work schedules, which do not require an employee to report to the office in a given pay period. The agreement comes just a few months after the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) called on agencies to consider increasing in-office work at headquarters offices.
Under the agreement, employees will also be able to provide input on any HHS plans for relocations and workspace reconfigurations.
Employees can also now request a reconsideration of their performance ratings, as part of the agency’s performance management appraisal program. And the contract requires management to respond quickly to any of these requests that come in.
The agreement also expands eligibility for HHS’ childcare subsidy program by increasing the total family income threshold to $75,000 annually. There will be an expanded awards program, as well as a student loan reimbursement program.
Reardon said these updated provisions in the five-year agreement will lead to better work-life balance, while helping recruit new talent and retain experienced employees at HHS.
“This new agreement … assures that frontline HHS employees have a voice in their workplace and that their contributions to the public health are valued and respected,” Reardon said.
Prior to reaching the new milestone, collective bargaining between HHS and NTEU remained contentious for years. The union’s challenges with the department began back in 2018, after former President Donald Trump signed a trio of executive orders cutting official time and collective bargaining.
During the Trump administration, HHS made several bargaining proposals to NTEU to change previously negotiated policies for telework, alternative work schedules, transit subsidies, performance awards and appraisals, and reassignments and details — many of which NTEU opposed, saying that the proposals violated the union contract already in place.
Attempts to negotiate eventually led to HHS declaring an impasse in 2019. The Federal Service Impasses Panel’s general approval of the bargaining proposals then let HHS start to implement them.
In response, NTEU filed unfair labor practice charges with the Federal Labor Relations Authority. In January 2020, an independent arbitrator determined that HHS committed an unfair labor practice against NTEU by violating the 2010 labor-management agreement, which was updated in 2014.
But union negotiations took a turn in January 2021, after President Joe Biden repealed several of the Trump administration’s executive orders, in effect opening the doors for federal unions to negotiate contracts with fewer restrictions.
The Biden administration improved “the overall environment for labor-management relations in the federal sector by supporting a more collaborative approach to collective bargaining,” Reardon said.
In August 2021, NTEU and HHS agreed to rethink labor-management negotiations. HHS agreed to drop the old proposals it had developed under the previous administration and instead start fresh with a new contract.