Just days after the Social Security Administration announced the impending end of a long-running telework pilot program for operations staff, the panel protected employees in the Office of Hearing Operations from a similar fate.
An independent board tasked with resolving collective bargaining disputes between federal agencies and employee unions last week handed a rare victory to a union, preserving telework at the Social Security Administration’s Office of Hearing Operations.
The National Treasury Employees Union has been in negotiations with Social Security on a new contract since early 2018. Although both parties eventually came to agreement on 37 of 38 articles, one matter remained unresolved: telework.
Currently, Social Security employees within the Office of Hearing Operations may work remotely three or four days per week. While NTEU sought to preserve the existing telework program, the agency sought “flexibility to adapt” the program. Management suggested that there are occasionally service disruptions when some employees telework, and that for others, officials predicted that their work would become “less portable” in the future.
But the union argued that the telework program has been a success, pointing to a reduction in the case backlog while employees work upwards of four days a week remotely. NTEU objected to granting the agency the ability to change the terms of telework outside of the collective bargaining process.
“The union rejected the idea that while the parties have negotiated a robust telework article, including providing for the need to temporarily suspend the program, that the agency should maintain the sole discretion to terminate or modify the program unilaterally,” the panel wrote in its decision. “The union argued that allowing the agency to maintain sole discretion to make modifications defeats the purpose and right of the union to negotiate the details of a telework program.”
The panel was unconvinced by the agency’s proposal, frequently citing the “lack of specifics” in management’s argument, and imposed NTEU’s proposed language preserving the telework program.
“Although the parties have been bargaining for a year, the agency failed to present any specific program changes they are seeking to make in the bargaining unit workload that would impact eligibility under the telework program,” the panel wrote. “While the agency asserted that they ‘may’ need flexibility to redirect other work, the agency offered no specific [plan] to do so, or any demonstration that the other work cannot also be done while teleworking.”
The panel’s decision came just days after Social Security announced it would end its seven-year long telework pilot program for employees in the agency’s operational components, a decision that affects roughly 12,000 workers. The agency was able to end the program unilaterally because of language imposed by the impasse panel earlier this year, after the agency made very similar arguments about needing “flexibility” to adjust telework.