Union negotiates foreign language pay for customs, border officers

Customs and Border Protection officers who use their foreign language skills on the job have the opportunity to earn monetary awards equaling up to 5 percent of their base pay, under an agreement reached with a labor union last week.

The American Federation of Government Employees' CBP Council 117 reached the agreement with the CBP Office of Field Operations to grant officers the additional pay under the agency's Foreign Language Award Program.

CBP also will pay for an officer's exam to test foreign language skills once per year -- and for two additional exams per year for languages of special interest.

The score on the exam correlates to a percentage of base pay, up to a maximum award of 5 percent. Once an officer achieves the maximum through testing, there is no need to retest in order to receive the monetary award. Officers also can test for more than one language and combine percentage points in order to achieve the maximum 5 percent benefit, according to the agreement.

The Foreign Language Award Program, established by the 1993 Customs Officer Pay Reform Act, allows employees who speak and use foreign language skills on the job to receive a cash award if they use the language for at least 10 percent of their duties and have passed the competence test.

"We are extremely pleased with the outcome of these negotiations," said AFGE President John Gage. "CBP officers deserve compensation for their high skill level in the area of foreign languages, and this agreement is only going to help strengthen the security of America's borders."

The move comes amid discontent over CBP's move to consolidate more than 20,000 non-Border Patrol employees -- represented by three different unions based on the agencies they had worked for prior to the March 2003 creation of the Homeland Security Department -- under a single labor group.

On Jan. 17, the Federal Labor Relations Authority's Washington, D.C., regional office ordered the certification of AFGE's opponent, the National Treasury Employees Union, as the winner to be the sole representative for the non-Border Patrol employees.

But AFGE later appealed that ruling, arguing that there was lack of fair and equal access to CBP employees prior to the election. The official certification of a union for CBP employees is expected this month.

AFGE Assistant General Counsel Gony Goldberg said that if NTEU ends up getting certified, the union would have the option of sustaining the foreign language agreement until renegotiations are complete.

Goldberg said that both the NTEU and AFGE contracts with CBP employees have expired, adding that CBP refuses to negotiate with either union until the certification is finalized. But until the election is complete, the foreign language pay agreement for AFGE-represented CBP employees will remain in effect, she said.

"We're very hopeful that the FLRA will reconsider and reopen the election," Goldberg said. "And during that time period, our memorandum of understanding will be in effect so that any officer who gets the pay benefit cannot have it taken away."

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