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Federal Diary

Union Says Social Security Ducks Big Issues in Contract Talks

By Stephen Barr
Friday, September 24, 2004; Page B02

Flex time. Dress code. Bonuses.

The usual stuff of contract disputes is on the negotiating table between the Social Security Administration and the American Federation of Government Employees.

But the union contends that far more important issues -- such as how to handle the looming workload that will be caused by the new Medicare prescription drug benefit -- are not being discussed by the agency.

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Federal Diary Page

"There's a wall of silence" at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore, said Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE Council 220, which represents Social Security employees.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans apply for Social Security and Medicare coverage every year, often at the same time, and the Social Security Administration, which determines entitlement to Medicare benefits, may face extra work because of the drug benefit, Skwierczynski said. The drug benefit goes into effect in 2006.

Skwierczynski said the union asked for a briefing on workload projections but was told no decisions have been made. "We are concerned about agency plans," he said.

Jo Anne Barnhart, the Social Security commissioner, has refused to meet with the union, Skwierczynski said. That prompted the union to circulate a petition "protesting the agency's attitude," which has been signed by about 10,000 of the agency's 65,000 employees, Skwierczynski said.

The agency declined to comment on the issues raised by Skwierczynski. "We don't think it is appropriate for us to discuss these issues," agency spokesman Mark Lassiter said. "We are at the negotiating table discussing them, and that is the appropriate place to discuss them."

Lassiter, however, said he would address concerns that the agency intended to remove a contract provision that protects Social Security employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. That "was never our intention," and Barnhart has "made it clear that the contract language prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation will be retained," he said.

According to Skwierczynski, the contract between the agency and the union expired in April. The two sides have completed 11 weeks of bargaining, and more sessions are scheduled. He said agreement has been reached on 12 minor provisions, with two dozen major issues still on the table.

Skwierczynski, who called the negotiations "the worst that I've seen," contended that the agency wants to remove or scale back employee benefits agreed to in previous contracts.

Contract provisions in dispute cover such areas as flexible working hours, the work-at-home program, bonuses, promotions, job evaluations, workplace health and safety and whether managers can set criteria for professional attire in each office, Skwierczynski said.

In addition, he said, the agency is seeking to "gut" the union through proposals that would limit the time that union representatives spend on employee grievances and other matters.

Skwierczynski contended that the Social Security contract talks are part of a larger strategy by the Bush administration to weaken unions. He noted that Bush appointees on a federal impasses panel ruled this April against AFGE in its contract dispute at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

"That's had a lot to do with their attitude," he said. "They think they can be successful at scaling back the contract."

Sorting Out Back Pay

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency will provide back pay to employees who were not properly compensated for overtime in recent years, the National Treasury Employees Union has announced.

The overtime case grew out of a 2001 change in the "pay bands" used to set salaries, an agency spokesman said. At that time, the agency began a study of the changes and later notified the union that it intended to provide back pay, the spokesman said.

About 350 employees may have been affected by the pay-band changes and steps are being taken to determine who should receive back pay, the spokesman said.

Talk Shows

Kathryn Troutman, president of the Resume Place Inc., will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com.

Paul Tibbits, director of business management modernization at the Defense Department, will be the guest on "The Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com

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