The Washington Post

Federal unions want Obama to use his executive power to act on their wish list

Federal labor leaders perked up during Tuesday’s State of the Union address when President Obama pledged to make 2014 “a year of action.”

“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families,” he promised, “that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s federal employee families the union leaders are particularly interested in, and they have a wish list waiting for presidential action.

Like many wishes, those by labor leaders don’t always come true.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, wants Obama to propose a 3.3 percent pay raise for federal workers. The current Congress would probably block that. Following a three-year freeze on their basic pay rates, Kelley said it is “time to start getting federal pay back on track.”

Obama began using his pen to push workplace initiatives early in his administration. In June 2009, he signed a presidential memorandum allowing some work-related family benefits — for example, long-term care insurance, to cover the same-sex partners of federal employees. In his speech this week, he announced a new $10.10 minimum hourly wage for new federal contracts.

In between those events, the Obama administration took action to overhaul federal hiring practices, close a controversial internship program and replace it with “student pathways” into government, grant airport transportation security officers collective-bargaining rights (when similar legislation had been bogged down for years), reestablish government labor-management forums, increase the hiring of veterans and disabled people, promote federal telework and quickly extend employee benefits to gay married couples, after a Supreme Court ruling allowed the federal government to recognize their unions.

The administration doesn’t always move quickly, however, even when issuing regulations to implement a law the White House supports. Last year, lawmakers approved a phased retirement plan for feds that was proposed by the administration, but it has yet to issue final regulations implementing it.

“Making government work in a more efficient and productive way for the taxpayer and the federal workforce is a priority of this Administration,” Office of Management and Budget spokesman Frank Benenati said by e-mail, “and the president will continue to take the steps where appropriate to make government work better for all Americans.”

The Partnership for Public Service, which studies federal workplace issues, said the president should merge management of the Senior Executive Service into a single body that would coordinate multi-agency initiatives, foster mobility and improve SES executive development.

Several suggestions from labor focus on moving government work from private contractors to federal employees. The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union, has a top 10 list of actions “to improve the federal government’s workforce.” Here are some:

●Align local pay boundaries for blue-collar and white-collar feds. “The disparate treatment of federal workers who work side-by-side for the same employer is unfair and unproductive.”

●Allow transportation security officers the same disciplinary appeal rights available to most federal employees. Currently, TSOs have limited ability to appeal adverse personnel actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board and rely primarily on an internal disciplinary procedure.

●Stop Department of Veterans Affairs “reclassifications,” which downgrade low-wage positions. AFGE says the downgrades could potentially limit the compensation of its members.

●“Direct the Department of Defense to stop using borrowed military manpower, which is resulting in scores of hard-working civil servants — many of them Wounded Warriors — being replaced with more expensive, less experienced military personnel.”

●Issue regulations to enforce the annual cap on taxpayer subsidies for contractor compensation. The cap is scheduled to fall to $487,000, from $952,308 in June.

●“Allow Bureau of Prisons correctional officers who work in highly dangerous areas of federal prisons to routinely carry pepper spray to defend themselves if physically attacked by violent inmates.”

●Order the U.S. Department of Agriculture to withdraw its proposal to remove most federal inspectors from poultry slaughter lines and have inspections performed by plant employees, which “would endanger the health and safety of employees and the American public.”

“The vast majority of items on this list either save the government money or are cost-neutral actions that are all about safety, equity and the integrity of government programs,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “Not one is a new request, and no substantive objections to any of them has ever been offered. On the contrary, we’ve received repeated assurances that the administration supports all of them.

“Now is the time for action.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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