Telework: the Unions Will OK Consistency at a Price

Any reading of OPM Chief Berry’s memo to Agency Heads on telework points out the weaknesses of Uncle Sam’s current scheme for consistent policies affecting employees. The author says that Berry doesn’t get that consistency throughout government on a working conditions issue is merely a dream on his part.

I read with interest and, admittedly some amusement, OPM Director John Berry’s plea to Agency Heads to make certain aspects of telework consistent, at least in the DC Metro area.  Berry’s memo tells Agencies:

Agencies must redouble their efforts to communicate expectations to their employees and supervisors in written policies and procedures, subject to any applicable collective bargaining responsibilities.”

The Memo goes on to say:

“While increased use of unscheduled telework has enhanced our COOP capabilities during severe weather, special events and other emergency situations, it is now time to expand telework to allow a greater number of telework-ready employees to be productive during Government closures in order to meet the Act’s objectives.”

None of this can be argued with.  It all makes perfect sense unless an Agency needs union cooperation to make it work.  As we all know, though perhaps not Mr. Berry, Federal unions can refuse to even discuss telework changes during the life of a contract.  If there’s no contract, the union can bargain Impact and Implementation of any proposed Agency policy change for months or years.  When a Federal union smells the blood of a needed change in the labor relations water, their usual tactic of seeking a profit opportunity inevitably comes into play.  This particularly true in recent years with the current slate of political dipping their toes into labor relations.

So, let’s say Agency X wants to help Mr. Berry accomplish his memo’s goals and drafts a new policy accordingly.  Dutifully, they propose it to their union and the union wants, in return, something unrelated it failed to get in prior negotiations.  The Agency cries, in self defense, “Covered By”.  The union says no give on my proposal, no give on yours, and we’re off to the ever unpredictable Federal Service Impasses Panel (I’m not being negative, it’s the simple truth).  Meanwhile, Mr. Berry is whistling in the wind or is it a gale a la Sandy.

One thing Mr. Berry can do, if politically incorrect, is publish a Federal Register Notice outlining a regulatory change under OPM’s authority.  Once the new Regulation is in place, at least the consistent government-wide policy would go into effect as contracts expire or earlier if Agencies strike a deal.  Sooner or later, all are covered and the mill of government grinds consistent grain.  Of course, some unions might see that as a heavy handed application of OPM’s power.  I guess it depends on your perspective.

The pleading nature of this memo is evident.  It seeks to place the creation of consistency on a wide variety of diverse Agencies, all having no, some or total labor union involvement in decision making.  That’s why there’s an OPM i.e., to manage cross cutting issues.  OPM’s ambivalence in the exercise of this role has lead to much bigger problems in the merit system than inconsistency regarding who does or doesn’t get to work at home in a Washington weather crisis.  It has exercised exactly zero constructive purpose concerning assisting Agencies in developing bargaining approaches, using its regulatory authority to help Agencies manage better or rein in the current craziness at FLRA or MSPB.

Michael Bloomberg said,  “the politics of partisanship and the resulting inaction and excuses have paralyzed decision-making, primarily at the federal level, and the big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy.” 

Lots of truth in this as it addresses OPM.

As always, any opinion you perceive is my responsibility alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.