Sorry Feds: You Have to Bring Your Own Plates and Forks to Work

GAO says agencies cannot use appropriated funds for disposable plates and cutlery.

In a decision that was five years in the making, government auditors have ruled that federal employees are on their own when it comes to disposable cups, plates and cutlery.

Upon reconsideration of a decision originally released in December, the Government Accountability Office determined appropriated funds at the National Weather Service “are not available to purchase such items since they constitute personal expenses of employees.” The NWS Employee Organization, which represents the agency’s workforce, has fought NWS management since 2009 to provide the eating accessories on the agency’s dime.

In September 2009, the Commerce Department and NWSEO signed a memorandum of understanding that the government would supply workers with eating utensils. Things went swimmingly until 2013, when Commerce announced it could no longer afford the perk. The union, however, refused to give up so easily.

Instead, the two sides went to arbitration, and the third party sided with the union. This time, it was Commerce that said, “not so fast.” The department initially went to the Federal Labor Relations Authority to settle the dispute, but asked the board to stay its decision until GAO had a chance to weigh in.

GAO’s set forth a “general rule” regarding the purchase of disposable plates, cups and cutlery using public funds, saying they would “serve no purpose other than accommodating employees’ personal tastes.”

“There can be no doubt that disposable plates, cups, and cutlery are personal items, and that the benefit of their use (and thus the cost of acquiring them) inures to the individuals who use them,” GAO wrote. “It is axiomatic that public funds are generally not available for the cost of personal items for the public’s employees.”

The auditors also noted that a collective bargaining agreement, such as the MOU between Commerce and NWSEO, cannot obligate funding except as spelled out by Congress.

The union challenged GAO’s initial decision on the grounds the dispute did not fall under the agency’s purview, but GAO said that argument reflected a “fundamental misunderstanding” of its statutory responsibility. GAO also said appropriations issues were “not within FLRA’s area of expertise” and therefore the authority should not weigh in on the decision. 

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