A decline in staff and a growing backlog of cases have damaged the reputation of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, said lawmakers and nominees for two positions at the agency on Wednesday.
"Your nominations come at a critical juncture for the FLRA," Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Workforce Subcommittee told Julia Clark, President Obama's choice to become the agency's general counsel, and Ernest DuBester, who has been tapped to become an authority member, at their joint confirmation hearing. "For far too long, however, the FLRA has failed to carry out its mission…. If confirmed, you can help rebuild strong partnerships between unions and management throughout the federal government, which I believe is necessary to help federal agencies fulfill their mission."
Clark said the agency was facing a backlog of 300 cases that regional directors had recommended the FLRA board consider, and 700 appeals of decisions made by regional directors. Akaka said that since February 2008, the FLRA board has had only one member and no general counsel, and Clark said overall staffing at the agency had fallen by half since 2001, making it difficult to reduce that backlog.
DuBester and Clark said they want to work with Carol Waller Pope, the only remaining member of the FLRA board, to develop a detailed plan for increasing the agency's staff and budget. They also said they would focus on improving morale there by establishing strong communication between senior-level officials and staff, and developing more training and advancement opportunities for current staff. The FLRA was ranked last in the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service's Best Places to Work 2009 list of small independent agencies. Clark said it might be a good idea to examine the pay schedules for attorneys to determine if current salaries are sufficient to attract and retain high-quality staff at the agency.
Both nominees emphasized the importance of alternative dispute resolution strategies to help reduce the existing case backlog and to prevent cases from piling up in the future. DuBester said it was important to begin providing training to labor and management representatives because greater knowledge of labor law could help reduce frivolous filings and make it easier for parties to resolve less significant disputes without the FLRA.
Clark said she would reconsider a change made during the Bush administration, which prevented the agency's general counsel from stepping in to help mediate disputes before regional directors decided that a complaint had merit. That change prevented the general counsel from helping to resolve conflicts at the point when disputes were under investigation -- a prohibition that union officials said scotched an opportunity to mediate conflicts before they consumed considerable resources and energy for all parties.
"It's my professional opinion though, particularly in labor relations, where the parties work together every day to attempt to achieve a common mission, anything we can do to help those parties understand their legal responsibilities and to resolve their disputes through any means other litigation, is in the public interest," Clark said.