A union objects to the FAA’s return-to-office order

The FAA's order for employees to return to the office didn't sit well with one of its unions. They call the order a clear violation of their collective bargaini...

The FAA’s order for employees to return to the office didn’t sit well with one of its unions. They call the order a clear violation of their collective bargaining agreement. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Dave Spero, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.

Interview Transcript:

Tom Temin And just to set the scene here, exactly how many members do you represent at the FAA and what do the aviation safety specialists do there?

Dave Spero So we represent over 11,000 employees at the FAA. We have a bargaining unit in the DoD as well. But they install, maintain, support, certify air traffic control equipment and inspect and oversee both the commercial and general aviation industries and all the support functions that go with it. Administrative safety professionals, logistics folks. We got them from soup to nuts.

Tom Temin And just before we get into the collective bargaining and the clauses and so forth, it sounds like the type of work where you got to be on the job anyway.

Dave Spero Well, it depends. Depends where you are and what you do. And I think that’s some of the argument that we’re making with the FAA, that they have to establish whether or not the request of the employees to telework is workable and whether or not it has an effect on the efficiency of the service. And some of those jobs, yes, you’re right. We have to be an air traffic control facility or in some capacity on the job because that’s where the work is. But that’s not always the case with our aviation safety inspectors. They could be living in New York and overseeing the commercial operators in California.

Tom Temin Wow, all right. So what is the, I guess, state now aside from the FAA order? But prior to that, what’s your sense of the level to which people were teleworking generally?

Dave Spero So on the aviation safety side, a significant number of them were teleworking. They were across the country. Some of them have virtual facilities. So the way that the aviation safety organization is built, these folks are not, they’re not all touching airplanes, let me put it that way. Everybody doesn’t walk out and look at an aircraft. They oversee the industry itself. They make sure that they’re doing all the maintenance they’re supposed to do. They’re keeping the records. They’re following the safety management systems that they’re prescribed to do under the code of federal regulations. So they do go out and touch aircraft. And let me let me be clear. They do go out to have in-person activities. They meet at the facility sometimes as required. They do show up in various places. And when we talk about telework for the aviation safety workforce, we’re not saying that they’re not out there in the field doing surveillance or the aviation safety world. We’re saying they’re not showing up to a brick and mortar facility every day.

Tom Temin Got it. And just as a detail, if you’re looking at, say, logs kept for maintenance of aircraft and so forth, that word conjures up big old paper books and people with fountain pens writing. And yes, the aileron worked on this DC six, but in fact, I’m guessing all of that is online anyway nowadays.

Dave Spero Absolutely. And it’s so extensive and there are so many systems that it’s required to be done that way. And clearly all the commercial operators, all the carriers and even the charters under 135 and 121 under commercial, they all do that sort of thing to their benefit. So we just make sure that from that perspective that they’re doing those records. But we do go out and oversee them on a case by case basis. We do certification of pilots, they do check rides, maintenance checks. So there’s a lot of work that these folks do in the field. And this decision to say everybody’s going to show up on a Wednesday and everybody’s got to be in the office six days a week is ridiculous.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dave Spero. He’s president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, one of the unions representing FAA employees. And so tell us about the collective bargaining agreement and what the clause or clauses are in there now that you feel are violated by the FAA order.

Dave Spero Clearly, the edict just go out there and say, all right, six days a pay period and you’re going to show up at work and Wednesdays you’re going to come in, violates our contract where it talks about specific criteria that management is supposed to follow when they grant or deny requests. First, how reasonable is the request to the employees? Secondly, is it workable? And thirdly, what’s the effect of the request upon the efficiency of the service? They have to look at all of these criteria in a fair, objective and equitable way, and they have to use sound business practices, not arbitrary limitations. And that language is right in our contract, not arbitrary limitations. So in our opinion, this is an arbitrary decision by the FAA’s management board. They’re telling us that they’re following the OMB direction, but the OMB direction tells them to do exactly what’s in our collective bargaining agreement, make sound business practices and not arbitrary decisions. So we’re pursuing it from that perspective.

Tom Temin And what have you done to pursue so far? Have there been talks and have the FAA management people been willing to sit down and hear you out? I mean, what’s the status of all that now?

Dave Spero The answer is yes. I think that we certainly got their attention. They have reached out to us. We have had some preliminary discussions around it. We’ve been clear that our collective bargaining agreement has been violated. We do not feel as though there’s room for compromise here. They have to follow the contract and that’s clearly what we told them. They are reaching out to us frequently three times this week. I’ve had conversations with senior leadership at FAA, and I think they are concerned as to how this rolled out. And to be quite honest, I don’t think that senior leadership got good advice from labor relations on this within their own organization. That’s a problem.

Tom Temin From what you’re saying, I get the sense that labor relations, at least between PASS and the FAA, are generally pretty good, except for this.

Dave Spero Well in.

Tom Temin Or am I overstating it?

Dave Spero You might feel a little bit I would say, look, we’re not in a Cold War with them right now. Let me let me say that. We are negotiating through collective bargaining agreements. Right now for the aviation safety workforce, we’ve been at a collective bargaining agreement for 18 months. We are having some breakthroughs now. And I think that maybe according to the agency, I think there’s some willingness to put that to rest. But we still have to finish a contract for the air traffic organization. Those are big, heavy lifts for us as a labor union. And to be doing two contracts at once, I think we’re going to accomplish it pretty soon. And when that happens, there will be new provisions for us to work together on and hopefully we’ll have provisions around collaboration which will put to rest some of the LR issues that we occasionally have.

Tom Temin And do you interact with NATCA, for example, the controllers themselves, their union, and do you kind of coordinate these types of issues ever?

Dave Spero Thanks for asking. So, yes, we do. Since I came into this position as president of the union, one of the first things I did was reach out to the new leadership over at NATCA. And we’ve consistently been building a relationship over there. Rich Santa and I from NATCA talk pretty frequently, and we even talked about this issue last week. So we’re on the same page with these things and we do have a good friendship and a relationship as labor unions together.

Tom Temin And of course NATCA members, they are by necessity on the job in the towers pretty much. Fair to say.

Dave Spero I would say with the air traffic controllers, that’s pretty much the case. I was a technician for many years and worked around them. I can’t speak for NATCA, but I do know that they do have a significant number of folks that represent engineers and other bargaining units as well. So they do have folks that are capable of not needing to be in those facilities. And they have a pretty good beat, too, with the agency.

Tom Temin So are you seeking then for that order to just be rescinded and then things to continue as they have been? Because I guess the evidence shows the planes aren’t crashing and the records are being kept and the equipment is getting installed. So are you looking for things to be as they were prior to that order coming out or something else?

Dave Spero We are. I think that the order needs to be rescinded, at least for our bargaining unit and employees, people we represent. They’re know clearly free to do whatever it is they want to do with non bargaining unit employees. But at the same time, we’ve been able to show that we’re able to keep the national airspace system moving and running. And I think that from that perspective, it’s something that they got to respect and understand If they want to have more scrutiny over telework and what it looks like, then they need to follow our collective bargaining agreement to make that happen.

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