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GAO to fed workers: No, taxpayers can’t pay for your plastic forks

(Julia Ewan/The Washington Post)

(This post has been updated.)

Federal workers who pack their lunches should also remember to pack their own utensils.

A Government Accountability Office decision released last week determined that federal agencies cannot supply “disposable cups, plates, and cutlery” for employee use because they are for personal benefit and not a specific government purpose.

The issue was brought to light in a dispute between the Commerce Department and the National Weather Service employees. In 2009, Commerce had allowed the weather offices to supply hand sanitizer, paper goods and plasticware in response to the H1N1 flu outbreak. In 2013, Commerce determined that those offices could no longer provide “disposable plates, cups, and cutlery.”

The NWS employees organization objected and the subject went to arbitration. The arbitrator at the time sided with the employees that providing the disposable items could lead to a healthier, and thus more productive, workplace. But the Commerce Department appealed to the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA), and that decision is still pending.

Unbeknownst to the NWS employees, Commerce asked GAO to separately look into the dispute. The GAO made a final decision on Dec. 23 that the bar was very high for allowing taxpayer dollars to be used for anything viewed as a personal expense.

“Disposable cups, plates, and cutlery clearly constitute a personal expense,” the GAO concluded. “Commerce has not demonstrated that using appropriated funds to provide these items would directly advance its statutory mission and that the benefit accruing to the government through the provision of these items outweighs the personal nature of the expense.”

In June 2014, when Commerce’s general counsel appealed, the NWS employee organization put out a statement shaming the agency for wasting taxpayer dollars on the dispute:

“It is hard to imagine that with current international trade violations, international piracy of American intellectual property, and commercial espionage, the General Counsel of DOC would rather spend its efforts to make sure that NWS employees don’t get paper plates and utensils.”

Dan Sobien, a meteorologist and president of the National Weather Service employee organization, said he didn’t know GAO was asked to look into the issue and only found out on Christmas Eve while at his mother in law’s house when he checked his e-mail.

Sobien said most national weather offices are small, remote outposts with only two people per shift responsible for all the warnings and all the forecasts for that area.

“In most places you can’t run out to Burger King and grab a burger to bring back to work,” he said. “Many eat at their work station while monitoring weather.”

While the GAO has offered its opinion, it is Sobien’s understanding that the FLRA will make the binding decision.

“Its really a bizarre thing,” he said. “There’s no way this could cost them more than five or ten thousand dollars.”

Edda Emmanuelli Perez, managing associate general counsel at GAO, said it didn’t do an audit, just issued a ruling on the merits, so she doesn’t know how much was spent by the offices on the disposable items, or if other government agencies buy their offices such items. The GAO can’t enforce its decision, she said, but the decision is a message to the greater federal government community that it views those purchases as personal expenses.