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Weather Service Staffers Protest 'Gag Orders' in Workforce Planning

Two employee groups file complaint about nondisclosure policies they deem illegal.

The National Weather Service’s recent introduction of employee nondisclosure agreements concerning internal issues such as workforce planning, grievance procedures and collective bargaining has prompted a legal complaint from two employee groups.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization joined with the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Wednesday in writing to the Office of Special Counsel saying the moves by Weather Service managers are illegal “blanket nondisclosure policies or agreements, otherwise known as ‘gag orders’ ” under the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

“The National Weather Service knows it’s unethical for union representatives to keep critical information from the employees they represent,” said NWSEO Executive Vice President Bill Hopkins in a statement. “By the very nature of a union, we are bound to communicate with our members and include their input on decisions affecting their jobs.”

The Weather Service “is about the last place where national security-style secrecy rules need to be enforced,” added PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, describing the impact of the three orders as broad. “Everyone is free to talk about the weather except for the people working inside the National Weather Service. Go figure.”

The nondisclosure orders issued by management at the NWS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Commerce Department forbid disclosure of information arising out of agency activities in workforce planning, settlement of grievance disputes and the collective bargaining process.

The complaint argues that such orders are classified as “a prohibited personnel practice” under the federal merit system enforced by the Office of Special Counsel.

The NWS released a statement saying the recent moves are a response to recommendations by the National Academy of Public Administration that it “identify the agency’s current capacity for delivering key services needed today and in the future. One significant driver behind this recommendation is that the current NWS staffing profiles were designed in the late 1980s to meet the needs of 1990s stakeholders and built around the limits of the technology of that time, which have since changed significantly,” it said. “This multi-year effort starts by first understanding how the NWS works today, what the strengths of its operating models, organizational structure and workforce are, and to understand the gaps or imbalances between them. This requires developing a baseline of the current situation and future projections.”

The Weather Service is committed to involving the union “throughout the project,” it said, “including developing evaluative criteria, weighing the pros and cons and assessing the feasibility of all options.” All participants were asked to sign a charter that includes a confidentiality clause before viewing material that is “pre-decisional” but a necessary part of the deliberations. “References to the expectation of confidentiality come from [Office of Personnel Management] guidance to agencies on best practices in implementing Executive Order 13522 – Establishing Labor Management Forums and Pre-decisional Involvement,” the statement continued. “It’s unfortunate that NWSEO representatives have refused to sign the confidentiality agreements,” it said. “Until that happens, we will and can only share information on the operations and workforce analysis project with NWSEO that has already been broadly distributed.”

Nick Schwellenbach, the Office of Special Counsel’s senior communications specialist, told Government Executive his office “will carefully review any claim of a (b)(13) violation filed with us. Agencies should familiarize themselves with this provision in the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. OSC is also available to provide training to agencies on protecting federal employees’ right to blow the whistle without fear of retaliation or improper restraint.”

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