Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., led the call for talks to resume.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., led the call for talks to resume. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

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More Than 100 Lawmakers Urge HHS to Resume Bargaining with Union

The department has not responded in nearly five months to calls to continue talks with its labor union, despite an arbitrator's finding that it had engaged in bad faith bargaining.

A group of more than 100 lawmakers on Thursday demanded management at the Health and Human Services Department return to the bargaining table nearly five months after an independent arbitrator concluded that the department engaged in bad faith bargaining when it rushed contract negotiations with the National Treasury Employees Union to impasse.

In 2018, after less than a week of negotiations and mediation, HHS declared an impasse, bringing the matter before the Federal Service Impasses Panel for resolution. Although NTEU filed multiple unfair labor practice complaints, the impasses panel last April issued a decision siding mostly with management, gutting telework, annual leave and other policies governing benefits for employees.

But last September, an independent arbitrator ruled that HHS had engaged in bad faith bargaining, effectively voiding the impasses panel-imposed contract and instructing both parties to return to the negotiating table. Shortly afterward, the union asked management to do just that.

In the intervening months, HHS appealed the case to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which allows the pro-management contract to remain in effect, at least temporarily.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health Chairwoman Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and 106 other House Democrats urged Azar to accept the arbitrator’s decision and return to the negotiating table. They noted that HHS has not even responded to NTEU’s request last October to restart contract talks.

“Following [the arbitrator’s] decision, the head of one of the unions representing HHS employees wrote to you requesting that negotiations be resumed,” the lawmakers wrote. “We understand that you have not responded to this request, and we urge you to return to the negotiating table as soon as possible.”

The lawmakers also said that by engaging in bad faith bargaining tactics, HHS likely has hindered its workforce's efforts to fulfill the department's mission. 

“This violation of labor laws is particularly troubling because HHS employees serve critical functions in protecting the safety of Americans,” they wrote. “The tens of thousands of individuals that work at HHS all play an important role in helping the department meet its mission ‘to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans.’ Dedicated public servants shouldn’t have to divert their attention from helping HHS meet its mission to worry about the burden of anti-employee policies because management is failing to negotiate in good faith.”

An HHS spokesperson confirmed the department had received the letter and promised to respond. “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,” the spokesperson said.

It is unclear when the FLRA will take up the department’s appeal.