AFGE, SSA reach 'conceptual agreement' on new contract

Thursday - 3/1/2012, 12:28pm EST

Witold Skwierczynski, AFGE chief negotiator

Download mp3

This story was updated March 2, 2012, at 11 a.m.(EST)

A "conceptual agreement" has been reached between the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the Social Security Administration over the terms of a new national contract, AFGE announced Thursday. The agreement came after 27 months of negotiations.

"It was a struggle to say the least," AFGE chief negotiator Witold Skwierczynski The Federal Drive with Tom Temin Friday.

Since December 2009, representatives from AFGE and SSA have been meeting two weeks out of every month to negotiate. Negotiations were moved to the Federal Services Impasse Panel October 2011. AFGE made the request, citing a lack of progress in the negotiations.

"They sent us back to the table and asked us to engage in intense mediation," Skwierczynski said. "We set up a four-week schedule of bargaining, and we were able in that period to make a breakthrough."

"It's been a long road but we fought hard and proudly won improvements in benefits and working conditions for the employees of the Social Security Administration," AFGE National President John Gage said in a press release. According to Skwierczynski, Gage had assisted in reaching the conceptual agreement in the end.

What makes the new contract "conceptual," Skwierczynski said, is that it has not been finalized by either AFGE or SSA management.

"We have a basic agreement," he said. "We still have to write some of the language. We've already started writing the language. We've run into some problems on some issues about that, but I think we're well on our way to reaching a final agreement."

Increased employee benefits

One of the highlights of the contract is a new vision program at SSA, a health and safety provision for people who use computers and are experiencing deterioration of their vision because of that.

"Our former vision program provided for up to $50 for a medical exam and $175 for eyeglasses," Skwierczynski said. "We've upped those amounts to $65 for the exam and $200 for the eyeglasses."

SSA's current transit subsidy program provides for a $60 a month reimbursement outside the National Capital region for transit-related expenses. Under the new agreement, the reimbursement is increased to $75 a month for the first year of the contract, $80 for the second year and $90 for the fourth year.

"We've had substantial improvements in both those areas in terms of employee benefits," Skwierczynski said.

What's next?

Despite the conceptual agreement, some key parts of the contract still need to be hammered out, including merit promotions, appraisals and work at home. The agreement stipulates that these final items must be added to the contract no later than June 2012.

"Other than that, the rest of it's pretty much agreed to," Skwierczynski said.

AFGE and SSA reached their initial agreement on Tuesday. They then followed it up with writing sessions on Wednesday and Thursday to capture the language of what both parties agreed to.

"We signed off on about 12 of the articles that we had a conceptual agreement on," Skwierczynski said. "We didn't have time to finish, so we're coming back the first week of April to finish that process."

If the union and the agency are able to come to terms on the rest of the contract language, a 60-day ratification period will occur when AFGE members will have the opportunity to vote on the agreement.

Assuming the agreement is ratified, the union will sign off on the contract. Union negotiators will then sit down with their counterparts at SSA to hammer out the final three unresolved issues.

Skwierczynski stressed resolving those issues was not a sure thing, as the union and the agency remained "far apart" on merit promotions, appraisals and work at home.

"We're not 'finished,' but we have established a framework for getting most of the contract settled," he said.

SSA, AFGE still at negotiating impasse