Weather Service Employees File Unfair Labor Charge Over Restrictions on Social Media Use

The restrictions harm efforts to improve working conditions, union says.

A Commerce Department directive from March that laid out restrictions on employees’ personal use of social media has prompted the National Weather Service Employees Organization to file an unfair labor practices complaint.

In a charge document submitted Monday to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, NWSEO General Counsel Richard Hirn argued that Commerce’s March 16 broadcast guidance—which was unsigned and sent “under the pretext” of welcoming new employees in the middle of a hiring freeze—“is interfering with and restraining employees’ rights under the Federal Service Labor Management Relations Statute.”

The policy, which Hirn called unlawful, “prohibits employees from posting on Facebook and other social media any information obtained on the job that is not publicly available; prohibits employees from identifying themselves as federal employees; and … requires the employee to submit for review by their supervisor or the agency’s public affairs officer any communication or materials that relate to the programs or operations of their operating unit or official duties prior to posting the information on social media.”  

The 4,000-member organization spread over five bargaining units argued that the policy’s “prohibitions and requirements significantly restrict the ability of the [organization] and its members acting on its behalf to communicate with each other, with Congress, with other labor affiliates and groups with whom NWSEO’s interests are aligned, and with the general public in their efforts to maintain and improve the working conditions” of the broader group of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees.

Commerce’s guidance, which refers readers to a standing policy document on social media and website use, contains such statements as: “Employees must be mindful of blurring their personal and professional life when using SM/W2.0 technologies. Employees should not establish relationships with working groups or affiliations that may reveal sensitive information about their job responsibilities.”

The NWSEO counsel argued that “members communicate with each other about labor-management issues, grievances, and problems with working conditions of their offices,” all of which could involve information that is confidential or sensitive and not publicly available, including discussions of the agency’s future plans for staff moves and automation. He also cited case law indicating that, because public employee unions are not permitted to negotiate on most economic issues of their employment, they must seek action by Congress or agency supervisors.

A National Weather Service spokeswoman said she could not comment on a pending complaint.