Furlough appeals continue to stretch MSPB 'beyond capacity'

Thursday - 3/13/2014, 9:20am EDT

Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp speak with MSPB's Susan Tsui Grundmann.

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By Jason Fornicola
Federal News Radio

As the Merit Systems Protection Board works through more than 32,000 furlough appeals on top of its normal caseload, the agency's resources continue to be stretched thin.

"Last summer we were severely tested when we got thousands and thousands of these cases filed electronically within a given period," MSPB Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp . "These cases flooded our system and really stretched it beyond the capacity that we were capable to maintain."

All 32,000 appeals are now in the hearing stage with more than 1,600 decisions being issued so far, according to Grundmann. More than 1,300 of those are appeals from Department of Defense employees. To date, no appellant has prevailed; however, some settlements have been reached. While the reasons are unknown to MSPB, it could be because the claim has been withdrawn or the parties worked out the issue themselves.

Courtesy of MSPB

Grundmann expects the impact of furloughs to be felt for the next several years. "Right now, we're feeling it in the region in the field offices with the administrative judges going to hearing," she said. "With more cases filed, more cases are going to be appealed and some of them have already started arriving in headquarters. When those cases arrive in headquarters, they impact not just one office, but the whole institution. ... Ultimately, it tests the infrastructure of our system."

Grundmann says the agency learned it's IT system, which at times needed to be taken down and rebooted during the influx of furlough appeals, is not set up to allow 32,000 people to access it all at the same time. Flexibility also is required to handle the cases, given the large number of appeals that have been filed.

"Furlough cases present unusual challenges for us," said Grundmann. "The vast majority of furlough cases are tens, hundreds, thousands of employees all with an independent right to present his or her case; all with the individual right to cross-examine agency witnesses and many without common representatives or any representative at all."

Add all this to the additional 5,000 cases within MSPB's jurisdiction and the result is an agency that feels its back is against the wall.

"Fifty-five, 57 administrative judges can't do them all at once," says Grundmann, who hopes the agency can complete the furlough appeals by the end of fiscal 2015 with a significant amount done by the end of fiscal 2014. This is comparable to what the agency was able to accomplish during a wave of cases in the past, most notably the air traffic control strike in the 1980s, which Grundmann says was done in 2 1/2 years with more resources and more staff.

In its recent Congressional Budget Justification for fiscal 2015, MSPB requested $46.8 million in appropriated funds. That's $6.5 million more than President Barack Obama proposed for the agency and $4 million more than it received in fiscal 2014. MSPB also wants an increase of 24 full-time employees to help complete its backlog of furlough appeals.

If MSPB's budget stays flat, Grundmann says the agency will still complete its mission. "Every case is going to get adjudicated, whether we're flat or not," she said. "It's just going to be a lot faster and a lot more efficient with the proper funding and some succession planning."

"At some point in time, the bulk of our AJ core, our administrative judge core, is going to retire and in order to maintain that level of efficiency that we've had in the past — cases keep coming, we keep taking them — we're going to have to have the people to do it," she said.

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