No Telework Cuts for Weather Service Employees, Under Union Settlement
Commerce Department employees represented by the National Weather Service Employees Organization are exempt from recent cuts to telework, though labor leaders bemoan deteriorating relationship with management.
A union representing employees at the National Weather Service and other components of the Commerce Department last month won its bid to exempt its workers from recently implemented cuts to telework and remote work.
Last year, as part of its return to office plan, the Commerce Department announced that employees would only be able to work from home two days per week, which marks a reduction from the four days per week of telework the department previously authorized, separately from the federal government’s maximum telework posture during the COVID-19 national emergency. The new Commerce Department telework policy was implemented last February.
Additionally, although managers are able to authorize “variances” to the policy, those allowances are capped at 5% of the Commerce Department workforce, and must be used to address “objective measures” such as high performance or retention difficulties. Remote work agreements “should be rare,” and now must first be approved by either a deputy secretary or agency component head.
The National Weather Service Employees Organization, a union that represents workers at the National Weather Service as well as pockets of employees elsewhere at the Commerce Department, including at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, filed an unfair labor practice in the wake of the new telework policy, claiming management failed to consult or bargain with the union ahead of the policy’s unveiling and implementation.
Richard Hirn, an attorney representing the union, said the Commerce Department agreed to a settlement on the day before the Federal Labor Relations Authority was scheduled to hear the unfair labor practice case. The settlement exempts all NWSEO employees from the new telework policy.
Hirn described the recent changes to telework as “noxious,” noting that the Office of Personnel Management’s guidance to agencies on reentry encouraged management to preserve expanded availability of telework.
“In essence, the policies they spelled out were more restrictive than what was in the Department of Commerce policy before [the pandemic],” he said. “OPM told the agencies to develop a return to work plan and to maximize telework under it and find flexibilities they didn’t have before, but DOC went in the opposite direction . . . Previously, there had been total discretion to grant employees eight days of telework per pay period, and it worked out between the employee and the supervisor based on what they thought the needs were in the office. But here, if you want to vary [from the two-days-per-week baseline], you have to get all these levels of approval up to the departmental level as well as caps on what percentage of employees can be granted a variance.”
Hirn said he’s hopeful that if the Commerce Department seeks to further restrict telework as suggested in a recent Office of Management and Budget memo, that management will consult and bargain with the union first. But he noted that the labor-management relationship has deteriorated since Secretary Gina Raimondo was confirmed in 2021. The Commerce Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“We hope through this settlement, the case we filed and the complaint the FLRA filed against the department, that Secretary Raimondo will start improving labor relations within the department,” Hirn said. “I haven’t heard from anyone at the departmental level since she became secretary. Even [Trump administration Commerce Secretary] Wilbur Ross used to call me personally, but we’ve never heard from these folks. You know about the OPM guidance to help federal workers organize? We don’t see DOC doing any of that, and it’s really unfortunate. This administration has been great to federal employees, with the exception of the Commerce Department, which has been treating its unions as if they weren’t there.”