Ruling rejects agency claims on layoffs at Broadcasting Board of Governors

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 2, 2012

An independent agency has rejected the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) appeal of a ruling that it improperly fired 16 employees, in part by using a reduction in force to cover more sinister reasons.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) issued a point-by-point rejection of the government’s arguments last week in the BBG’s appeal of an arbitrator’s decision that gave a good whipping to the agency last year.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The arbitrator ruled in November 2011 that BBG’s Office of Cuba Broadcasting dismissed the employees, most based in Miami, without showing it was for a legitimate reduction in force (RIF), without bargaining with the union over the RIF’s impact and implementation and as a way of getting rid of employees who had criticized the agency to Government Accountability Office and congressional officials.

FLRA found nothing wrong with the arbitrator’s decision. Each BBG argument was dismissed or denied.

BBG said it is carefully reviewing the decision and will “comment accordingly in due course.” Despite rulings to the contrary, BBG continues to defend the decisions that led to its decisive rebukes.

“The context of this case is that Radio and TV Martí took a considerable budget cut in 2009,” said Letitia King, a BBG spokesperson. “As a result, the agency conducted a legal reduction in force, following the standard policies and procedures covered within the current agreement with the union. The Agency is committed to good faith implementation of its union agreements and commitments with its bargaining unit employees. The RIF process respected the agreement with the union including the rights of individuals to an impartial implementation.”

Cuba Broadcasting runs Radio and TV Martí, a Cold War vestige providing news to the island nation. It’s a questionable operation for the U.S. government, but that’s another issue.

BBG’s view notwithstanding, the FLRA decision is a significant victory for the workers and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents them. Beyond the immediate application to BBG, the decision also puts other agencies on notice that they cannot layoff federal personnel while avoiding proper procedures or for illegitimate reasons. But for all its importance, the victory remains a symbolic one for the employees who still don’t have their jobs back.

“It was very welcoming news,” said Roxana Romero, a former Cuba Broadcasting news reporter. “It was a hard fight. It’s been a very difficult road to tread. I feel super- victorious. We won on all counts.”

But feeling super-victorious is not the same as being employed.

“I haven’t been that lucky to land a job,” she continued. “It’s a very difficult market out there.”

Romero has done freelancing and “some very odd jobs” since she and others were let go in December 2009. She was making $92,000 at the time, so in almost three years she’s lost more than $250,000.

The arbitrator ordered BBG to “restore affected employees . . . and make them whole.”

The employees are still waiting.

With two strong strikes against BBG’s position, it’s a good bet the agency eventually will have to rehire the workers with back pay and interest, as the arbitrator ordered. If that happens, BBG will have wasted money because it will have to pay the employees for all these months they were not doing the government’s work. Plus, the agency is now paying contractors to do some of the work the fired employees could be doing, according to Romero and union officials.

“From a taxpayer’s point of view, it’s really a travesty,” said Leisha Self, the AFGE lawyer on the case.

That situation could continue for a while.

“I think it is pretty evident they (BBG) don’t plan to bring them back unless they are forced to,” said Oscar Mora, an AFGE steward at the Cuba Broadcasting office in Miami.

Morale is low, he said, because employees see their colleagues “being fired and the agency bringing in contractors. They feel that is the way the agency is trying to go; get rid of as many employees as possible and replace them with contractors.”

It’s personal for Romero.

She isn’t sure why she was riffed, though she does recall contacting a congressional office and signing on to a group letter while she was still employed to complain about BBG’s use of contractors.

FLRA noted that the arbitrator, “relying primarily on the testimony of Agency employees . . . found that the Agency conducted the RIF because the Agency’s former director wanted to ‘get rid of’ those employees who had spoken critically about the Agency to the GAO and Congress.”

Romero, with a sigh and a pause, said BBG’s use of a contractor to do her work is “really offensive to me. . . . Somebody else is doing my job when I could do it and it bothers me.”

It also should bother taxpayers if they have to pay double, or more, for work because of bad management decisions.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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