At the Department of Homeland Security, officials and union representatives are warming up for heated debate over one of summer's coolest styles -- cargo shorts.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority, in a ruling last week, ordered the department's Customs and Border Protection bureau to meet the National Treasury Employees Union at the bargaining table and negotiate over the rules for wearing cargo shorts at work.
Colleen M. Kelley, NTEU president, contended that the bureau is engaged in "senseless litigation." Christiana Halsey, a CBP spokeswoman, said the case involves "a difference of opinion" over workplace safety and acceptable forms of attire.
The shorts vs. trousers debate began in July 2003, when the CBP moved to adopt a new uniform. The bureau, citing "internal security" and professionalism issues, proposed restrictions on when and where shorts could be worn by customs and other law enforcement officers.
When the union asked to negotiate on the matter, noting that officers in the field have been wearing shorts on hot and humid summer days since 1999, the bureau objected. The union responded by appealing to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
The CBP said it authorizes different uniforms for different work environments but allows cargo shorts only in "confined cargo environments" along the Southwest border and in southern Florida and Puerto Rico.
The agency views shorts as acceptable for employees inspecting ship containers and cargo in those hot weather posts but unacceptable in other outdoor locations, such as border crossings where an officer might suffer scrapes and burns caused by contact with cars.
In addition, Halsey said, shorts are not acceptable in places "where we are presenting ourselves to the public and in a professional manner."
Halsey noted that two other unions at the bureau had agreed to the restrictions on where shorts can be worn.
The NTEU, however, questioned the agency's arguments. It told the labor board that it had not received any evidence to support either the safety rationale or the idea that the public lost respect for federal law enforcement when encountering bare-legged officers.
One of the agency's primary arguments focused on the need for internal security. By limiting cargo shorts to certain locations, officers elsewhere will be able to more clearly identify one another during routine and emergency situations, the agency said.
But the labor board ruled that the agency "fails to provide any substantiation for its safety-related arguments against the wearing of cargo shorts" and did not demonstrate "a link or reasonable connection" between wearing shorts and security.
As a result, the labor board said, the CBP has a "duty to bargain" over its workplace rules for cargo shorts.
AFGE Wins on OT
The American Federation of Government Employees has won $20 million in overtime pay for employees of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service, which merged into the Department of Homeland Security.
The case, in litigation for more than a decade, covers more than 8,000 employees who were wrongly denied overtime during the period 1991 to 1998, said Jarrod Agen, a Homeland Security spokesman.
The department is working on the logistics of making the payments and has mailed letters notifying former employees that a payment will be coming, Agen said.
Homeland Security also has decided to review an arbitrator's ruling that new law enforcement officers are entitled to retroactive overtime pay because they were required to work an unpaid, sixth day each week while in training, CBP spokeswoman Kristi Clemens said.
When first asked about the ruling, the agency had said it would not file an appeal in the case, which was brought by the NTEU. The agency has 45 days to review the findings of the arbitrator, Clemens said.
Got the BRAC blues?
Please join Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) at noon tomorrow on Federal Diary Live, www.washingtonpost.com, for a discussion of the recommendations before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, including a proposal to transfer several thousand Defense Department employees in Arlington County to other locations.