Department official says HHS supports telework, but not as part of a collective bargaining agreement.
The union that represents Health and Human Services employees accused the department’s leadership of engaging in “bad faith” collective bargaining negotiations, essentially by refusing to negotiate implementation of the Trump administration’s recent executive orders.
The National Treasury Employees Union has filed two unfair labor practice grievances with the department—one in June and another on Tuesday—related to management’s posture following the May 25 issuance of three executive orders, which seek to make it easier to fire federal employees, streamline collective bargaining agreement negotiations and restrict unions’ ability to use official time.
“HHS’ so-called negotiators have shown no interest at all in continuing vital programs for employees, and they are intent on eliminating the ability for employees to get union assistance if they have a workplace problem,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon said in a call with reporters Friday. “What will probably result is managers that feel they can do whatever they want, including playing favorites and punishing critics. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 clearly states that collective bargaining in the federal sector is in the public interest, and trying to unilaterally impose barebones, cookie-cutter contracts is not in the public interest.”
The contract initially proposed by HHS would have removed 13 articles from NTEU’s existing agreement. Reardon said that although NTEU had been willing to bargain over the proposal, HHS would not accept any of the union’s ideas, and management negotiators refused to answer basic questions about their position, even after the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service got involved in the negotiation, at the department’s request.
The union stated in a timeline of negotiations that on July 31, HHS submitted its “last, best offer” to NTEU, which now proposes to eliminate 21 articles from the existing contract, including provisions governing telework, alternative work schedules, performance awards, sick and annual leave, and transportation subsidies. Management then declared an impasse in negotiations.
“This fits the definition of bad faith bargaining to a tee,” Reardon said. “It isn’t even bargaining at all. After proposing to eliminate 21 of the 34 articles in our current contract, refusing to answer any of our questions or explain anything about the proposals, HHS essentially said, ‘Take it or leave it.’ And they pushed back from the table and walked out.”
An HHS official said the agency does not want to get rid of programs for employees like telework and alternative work schedules. But management does not believe they should be “dictated” by collective bargaining agreements. The official also accused NTEU of intentionally delaying negotiations on a new contract.
“HHS is working with employees and their union representation to improve the operations of the department with the aim of making the federal government a better place to work and better able to deliver the services to the American people,” a department spokesperson told Government Executive in an email.
But Reardon said a department’s policy for workplace programs like telework cannot be trusted unless it is part of a collective bargaining agreement.
“There are some that say, and I have heard it from a distance from agency people, that ‘we’re not really going to get rid of these things,’” he said. “But when an important workplace benefit is removed from a [union] contract, that provides the opportunity for any manager anywhere in the agency to tell someone who may be depending on telework or on alternative work schedules because they have to take care of an elderly parent or a child or whatever . . . that they can no longer use telework, and that employee has absolutely no recourse.”
Reardon said he thinks HHS leadership is trying to “check the boxes” to suggest they have engaged in bargaining, with the plan of trying to rush their proposal to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, which can impose an agreement on both parties.
“The fact of the matter is the agency has not bargained in good faith,” he said. “We’re not at an impasse. The agency wouldn’t answer questions about their proposals, wouldn’t sit down for meaningful discussions with our bargaining team to discuss the intent of their proposals, something that has always been done at the bargaining table. [The impasse panel should tell them] to go back to the FMCS and the mediators should work hard to try to drive the parties together so that there’s a voluntary agreement. What’s happened so far is a shame.”
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