On furloughs, the details are negotiable

February 7, 2013
NTEU president Colleen M. Kelley
NTEU president Colleen M. Kelley

The two largest federal labor unions are preparing to exercise their bargaining rights if agencies decide to furlough employees because of sequestration budget cuts.

The National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees say they will work aggressively to soften the blow of potential furloughs and other changes prompted by the cuts.

Sequestration could begin in early March unless Congress delays or revokes it, and some agencies have raised the prospect of putting practically all of their employees on furloughs as a money-saving move. While most agencies haven’t said how many unpaid days they might order, or when, several Defense Department sections have projected furloughing employees for one day a week over 22 weeks, from the third week of April through September.

But in unionized workplaces many of the details would be negotiable.

“To the extent required by law or applicable collective bargaining agreement, agencies must bargain with employees’ exclusive representative before implementing a furlough,” says guidance from the Office of Personnel Management. “Each agency will determine the timing of when employees take administrative furlough days. For employees represented by labor unions, the timing of furlough days is subject to collective bargaining.”

Army guidance similarly states that “negotiations with local bargaining units are required and may not begin without express approval” from the secretary of the Army’s office.

The extent of the bargaining obligation depends on what’s already covered in contracts, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in an e-mail.

“NTEU’s plan is to bargain to the fullest extent of the law and to do all we can to decrease or eliminate the number of furlough days,” Kelley said. “There may be opportunities to impact the number of furlough days. If a decision is made to furlough, or if agencies implement other cuts that impact employees’ working conditions, we would bargain to mitigate that impact.”

David Borer, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that union locals will be working aggressively to do the same for its members.

“We can’t tell them no, you can’t furlough anybody; they have the right to do that by statute,” he said. “But management has to negotiate with us over the impact and implementation of changes they have the right to make.”

For example, a union might seek to bargain over the spacing of days, whether employees would have a choice in when they take furlough days, and if so, whether some would get priority in choosing, through seniority or some other standard.

Other issues could include the distribution of the workload among employees and what happens if employees can’t finish their required work because of the forced time off.

“We will also look at how particular groups of employees are impacted and what the plan is for management versus front line employees,” the NTEU’s Kelley wrote.

Federal labor law provides for mediation and review by a third-party impasses panel if the unions and agency management deadlock on such issues, but whether that process could be completed by mid-April – and what would happen if it isn’t – is uncertain.

“The process takes some time, and if there’s a dispute over whether something is or is not negotiable, it would take even longer,” said Borer. “That gives us a certain amount of leverage to drive the process to a conclusion.”

He added: “If there’s an active dispute, it would be an unfair labor practice for them to proceed. We think that provides a pretty big impetus for them to deal with us fairly on the impact and implementation. If these cuts come, time is going to be of the essence.”

Said Kelley: “One approach could be to delay furloughs and other cuts until towards the end of the fiscal year, hoping a budget deal makes furloughs and cuts unnecessary. The risk, of course, is that if there is no deal, the impact of necessary cuts or furloughs in a more condensed time frame will be much more severe.”

The most recent OPM figures, from 2010, show about 1.2 million of the 2.1 million executive branch federal employees are represented by unions. Those numbers exclude the U.S. Postal Service, which is self-funding and not threatened by sequestration, and reflect bargaining unit coverage, not dues-paying membership.

All employees, whether union-represented or not, are entitled to 30 days of advance notice before being furloughed, an opportunity to challenge the action, a written decision by the agency in response, and the right to appeal the agency’s action to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

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