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Beating the Backlog Blues

This week, the Federal Labor Relations Authority announced it had worked its way through a stack of 340 unfair labor practices cases. Getting rid of that backlog, which built up during a period when the George W. Bush administration lacked a general counsel and enough members for a quorum, was a victory for the small agency in the quest to keep its workload manageable. But that wasn't the only benefit. Employees and their representatives agree that backlogs take the bite out of unfair labor practice and discrimination charges, and make employees more vulnerable to retaliation.

Now that unfair labor practice filings can be addressed more promptly, they "actually mean something again," said Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

He said the knowledge FLRA will address new cases quickly could make agencies more willing to work with employees and their union representatives instead of violating labor rules. Such an incentive could lower the number of unfair labor practice cases filed overall, he said.

In "the recent past…management was well aware that cases before the FLRA simply languished in no man's land, or when unions knew that there was little chance of prevailing despite how strong of a case we had," he said. "There are teeth to this FLRA."

Employee advocates said they hoped other agencies that handle workplace complaints will be able to follow in FLRA's footsteps.

Backlogs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hurt employees governmentwide who file discrimination complaints, said Gabrielle Martin, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of EEOC Locals. In fiscal 2008, the most recent year for which numbers are available, EEOC faced a pile of 73,951 federal and private sector cases, and it took an average of eight months to process a complaint.

Employees often suffer additional discrimination, harassment and hostile workplace practices while they wait for EEOC to review their cases, according to Martin. "The longer cases sit, we tend to see an increase in retaliation charges," she said.

"This raises the question [of] whether people have lost faith in the system and go to federal court rather than to EEOC," Martin added.

Janet Kopenhaver, Washington representative for the affinity group Federally Employed Women, said even if retaliation does not occur, the prospect of a long wait could discourage workers from filing legitimate grievances.

"Employees know that if and when they file a complaint, the work environment is obviously completely changed and awkward for both the employees and their supervisors," she said. "An employee might decide not to file anything knowing that two years in an uncomfortable workplace would be extremely stressful each day. Second, these cases are quite costly -- both emotionally and financially. Considering that the case might never be resolved or will take years to do so would definitely impact a decision to move forward."

In the movies, justice often is sweet no matter how long the protagonist has to wait to avenge his family, win a dramatic court case, or escape from an island where he's been unfairly imprisoned. In real life, and in the federal complaints process in particular, the late British Prime Minister William Gladstone's observation that "justice delayed is justice denied" can be painfully true.

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