Ken Cuccinelli, acting leader of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, testifies before Congress in October.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting leader of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, testifies before Congress in October. Jose Luis Magana/AP

Immigration Services Agency Seeks to Suspend Bargaining With Union Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Although the agency already is allowed to implement workplace changes because of the national health emergency, officials now want to skip post-implementation bargaining as well.

Officials with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have informed the agency’s union that management does not want to bargain over workplace policy changes because of the coronavirus outbreak, even though agency leaders already have the power to implement the changes unilaterally.

During a national emergency, USCIS is able to make workplace policy changes without negotiating with the union. But the union is entitled to demand post-implementation bargaining to try to mitigate any negative impacts on employees.

On March 13, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 119, which represents around 13,000 USCIS employees, issued a demand to bargain over the agency’s coronavirus response measures. Their proposal includes requiring the agency to post signs encouraging good hygiene and that workers stay home when sick, timely COVID-19 testing for all employees, access to hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, and cancelling all “non-necessary” agency-related travel.

But on Wednesday, USCIS Labor and Employee Relations Chief Judy McLaughlin responded by proposing to suspend all post-implementation bargaining related to any agency actions taken in response to the coronavirus outbreak. McLaughlin said that instead, the agency would offer a weekly “briefing and feedback session” with union leadership.

“The agency has acted swiftly in response to a voluminous amount of information often subject [to] change by the hour,” she wrote. “The agency made several recent national-scope decisions—suspension of face-to-face applicant services, closure of USCIS field offices, and mandatory telework—that simply could not have been accomplished within the negotiated timeframes associated with traditional notice and bargaining.”

AFGE Council 119 President Danielle Spooner said demanding that the union waive its right to post-implementation bargaining is unacceptable, given that the union's collective bargaining agreement specifically calls for such bargaining during a national emergency.

“Just because there’s an emergency doesn’t circumvent their obligation to negotiate with us,” Spooner said. “We could have done this in the beginning of March, and we keep telling them that we’re not their enemy and we’re just trying to protect our people. The agency keeps talking about mission critical issues, but the mission of USCIS at this point should be to keep their employees safe.”

USCIS spokesman Daniel Hetlage said that prior to the agency's proposal, the union resisted plans to engage in bargaining via video or teleconference. He stressed that the proposal to temporarily suspend post-implementation bargaining would require the assent of the union.

"The notice proposing to temporarily suspend bargaining over emergency measures was drafted in exchange for the union’s request that the agency accommodate various union leadership demands for increased engagement," he said. "To effectuate it would require mutual agreement, meaning the union has the right to reject it or accept it."

Spooner said that although USCIS was one of the quicker agencies when it came to adopting mandatory telework for its employees, its actual implementation has been lackluster, since much of the agency’s work still is done on paper.

“The time in the office for us is solely dependent on which office we’re in,” she said. “The service centers were told to bring two to three weeks of work home, and the New York City office has given that guidance as well. But the Houston office, for instance, said only take three days of work, and then come back every three days just to drop off and pick up materials.”

And despite the mandatory telework, USCIS employees who interview ICE detainees for their asylum claims in some areas still are required to do that work face to face, rather than over the telephone or via video chat.

Spooner wrote a letter to USCIS objecting to its proposal, which she described as “illegal” and “absurd,” and said she is conferring with the union’s lawyers regarding possible next steps.

This story has been updated to include additional comment from USCIS.