Before furloughs, agencies must negotiate terms with unions

Wednesday - 2/27/2013, 6:36am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Before agencies can issue furlough notices, senior management must negotiate with employee unions over the implementation of the time off.

Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said Tuesday only one of the 31 agencies her union represents employees at has contacted them to begin negotiations. She said the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection directorate notified NTEU last week that it would send out furlough notices in mid-March.

"OMB has told the agencies and reminded them of their obligation to bargain to the full extent allowed under the law, and that would be about impact and implementation of the furloughs," Kelley said Tuesday during a press briefing with reporters in Washington. "In my discussions with agencies, I have highlighted for them they need to complete this bargaining before furlough notices are issued. It has not been an issue to date because no one has issued a furlough notice yet."

She said the NTEU's negotiations with CBP could begin as early as next week. The agency would need to figure out how to reduce its budget by $754 million by Oct. 1. CBP expects to help meet that goal by furloughing employees at least one day per period.

Employees represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) also are entitled to pre-furlough notice negotiations, said David Borer, AFGE general counsel.

"We are encouraging agencies to sit down with us as early as possible," he said. "Will they? Maybe. Maybe not. If they don't, they could be subject to unfair labor practice charges for failure to bargain."

A few discussions have started

AFGE represents tens of thousands of Defense Department employees and negotiations are happening on agency-by-agency basis, not out of the headquarters office, Borer said.

He said AFGE also is in preliminary negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency on furlough implementation. The union will conduct a conference call Wednesday with local chapters on negotiations around the implementation of furloughs.

Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, hosted a press conference on Tuesday on the impact of sequestration and furloughs on members of her union. (Photo by Erin Scott)

Kelley said agencies will need to consider a number of potential bargaining points such as how furlough days are served, whether employees can take all their days at once, say in August or September, and how the agency will ensure a fast approval process for second jobs.

"We have put together a model of proposals, things we are anticipating might be issues, but we are not serving notice on the agency until we actually get their proposals because we don't know what they have in mind other than CBP," she said. "We have initiated conversations with agencies months ago, saying 'Look we don't know what's going to happen, but if anything is going to happen that impacts employees and the work they do, the sooner we start talking the better.'"

AFGE's Borer said one item the union wants agencies to consider is letting employees volunteer to take furloughs.

"If someone is willing to say 'I'll go on furlough for a period of time and that will obviate the need for 10 others to take day off each,' why not give it to the person who wants to do that?" he said. "There is a lot to be said in terms of cushioning the blow to people who may need a paycheck. We are at a very preliminary stage, but it is something we will explore with agencies."

Kelley said NTEU has urged agencies to find savings, whether by it's not filing jobs openings or by taking other steps.

"Some agencies are open and receptive to that and others say, through body language, 'Thank you very much, but it's none of your business.' They are not in a listening mode," Kelley said. "If everybody comes to the table with the same interest and willingness to be flexible, maybe to do things a little different than they did, then I see no reason why it couldn't conclude in a way if an agency has to do furloughs they would be able to do that. At times, we've had bargaining with some agencies that have taken years."

Living expenses at risk

NTEU tried to put a face on sequestration by bringing IRS, Customs and Border Protection and other federal employees to Washington to lobby lawmakers to stop the automatic cuts slated to take effect March 1.

Jenny brown works for the IRS in Ogden, Utah. She spoke at the NTEU's press conference Tuesday. (Photo by Erin Scott)

The union released a survey of federal employees detailing what the respondents say would be the impact of cuts from sequestration.

The survey found 82 percent of federal employees who responded said sequestration-induced furloughs of one-day-a-week would cause them difficulty in paying for their living expenses, such as mortgages, rent and food.

Additionally, the survey found 63 percent of the respondents said furloughs from sequestration would force them to take money out of savings or retirement accounts.

NTEU received responses from 2,258 federal employees on the impact of budget reductions from sequestration and the ongoing financial challenges agencies face are having across the government. It conducted the survey online and through its electronic newsletter over a three-day period in February.

The survey covered both the potential personal impact of sequestration as well as the longer-term budget pressures agencies have been under.

For instance, 79 percent of the respondents said their agency is not replacing workers who leave, while 68 percent say they lack the resources to complete their job properly.

NTEU members discussed the impact sequestration would have in more personal terms.

Jenny Brown works for the IRS in Ogden, Utah. She said her office has fewer employees now than two years ago, and the IRS as a whole has 10,000 fewer employees than in 2011.

"We employees are being told to do more with less. And they are doing that and they are happy to do that. But to hit them again would really make things almost unbearable for them," she said. "Sequestration will hurt us. We are not able to provide the level of customer service that we would like to be able to provide and that we were able to provide two years ago. The phone hold times have gone up considerably, from 10-to-15 minutes to an hour or an hour-and-a-half."

A fix by March 27?

Dave and Colleen Matoon are married and both are CBP officers in Montana.

As CBP employees from Montana, married couple Colleen and Dave Matoon will take a double hit in pay if they're forced to furlough under sequestration. (Photo by Erin Scott)

Dave Matoon said their family would take a double hit, like many CBP families in Montana, because of sequestration.

"At our port alone, there are at least four other couples that work for Customs and Border Protection," Dave said. "Furloughs of 14 days would mean a 10 percent cut in pay for the rest of the year for our families. This is on top of the pay freeze that has spanned 27 months by then."

Kelley said she holds some hope that Congress will fix the sequestration requirement as part of the deal to keep the government funded after March 27, when the current continuing resolution ends.

"My sense is that the deadline of the CR on March 27 is going to provide another critical head-on collision with the sequestration," she said. "I'm hoping that might actually provide the impetus for a bigger deal that might address all of that. In that case, that would be really good because if furlough notices are not issued until March 15 and no one would begin serving until April 15 that would be good for people."

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