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Union hails agreement with Forest Service on benefits for domestic partners

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 11:55 PM

The National Federation of Federal Employees is hailing an agreement with the Forest Service that will provide certain benefits for the domestic partners of workers as a "historic achievement."

The collective bargaining agreement, which took effect Monday, allows domestic partners in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships time off to care for newborns, newly adopted children and newly placed foster children. Time off is also allowed to care for an ill partner.

"This is a big step forward for the federal workforce," said NFFE President William R. Dougan. "Now, Forest Service employees living in domestic partnerships will have the right to care for their loved ones in times of need. This is an example that we hope other agencies will follow."

In remarks prepared for an NFFE meeting in Reno, Nev., John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said he was "very pleased to hear your announcement this week that family and medical leave benefits, similar to those in the [Family Medical Leave Act], will now be available to same-sex couples and their families."

The agreement is one more step in the Obama administration's sometimes halting effort to recognize the full humanity of gay and lesbian people in the federal workplace.

For legal reasons, the administration has fought judicial attempts to provide health benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees and to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, although President Obama favors both.

He issued a memorandum in June 2009 that established the policy of expanding limited fringe benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, at least to the extent allowed by law. The memo did not include employer-sponsored health insurance coverage for those partners, but the administration supports legislation that would do that.

In June, the OPM announced that federal employees would be allowed to use leave to care for domestic partners, in addition to grandparents, grandchildren, stepparents and stepchildren. Funeral leave is also allowed for those relations.

The union contract now puts the protection of a collective bargaining agreement behind administration polices. Without that protection, the policies could be reversed by future administrations that might look upon these issues less favorably than does the current White House occupant.

"We took what used to be discretionary and made it a leave entitlement under our contract," said Mark Davis, chairman of the NFFE's Forest Service Council's legislative committee. "It's just a matter of fairness," he said. "I'm just as proud of this as I can be."

Even with the good labor-management relations that Uncle Sam and his staff currently enjoy, the NFFE's praise of the Obama administration was notable.

"It was the leadership shown by President Obama and OPM Director Berry that made this accomplishment possible," Davis said. "It took the union to secure these benefits, but it was their statement of policy and definition for 'domestic partner' that opened the door."

The contract defines a domestic partner as "an adult in a committed relationship with another adult, including both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Committed relationship means one in which the employee, and the domestic partner of the employee, are each other's sole domestic partner (and are not married to or domestic partners with anyone else), and share responsibility for a significant amount of each other's common welfare and financial obligations."

Ron Thatcher, president of the Forest Service Council, said that "this family-friendly benefit will have no cost to the government." The leave will be marked as either vacation time or leave without pay.

After praising the contract provision, Berry praised the partnership relationships that have been developed through labor-management forums in agencies throughout the government.

He said that not even everyone in his own agency was optimistic about federal labor management relations when he took over the OPM. "I believe that any labor-management relationship can be turned around," he said. "Some in my own agency might have questioned that a year and a half ago."

Although the union's agreement came through collective bargaining, Berry and the NFFE agree that the labor-management forums, which the administration created for both sides to meet regularly on workplace issues, created a foundation of cooperation that facilitated the negotiations.

On another point, Berry announced that a six-month pilot project testing a "results-only work environment" at the OPM is being extended until the end of September 2011.

"We're trying this new management system because we believe it will raise both productivity and morale," Berry said. "But the project did raise some legitimate concerns for both workers and managers. It required managers to allow a lot of work to be done outside the office and to provide workers a great deal of flexibility in their schedules. And it pushed workers to look beyond the comfort of the traditional 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday."

The pilot project is going well, he said, but only because of a level of trust developed among the agency's staff and supervisors.

"The message from the last year and a half at OPM is clear," he said. "Partnership pays."

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