WASHINGTON — Rep. Donald Norcross of New Jersey urged Congress to boost funding for the National Labor Relations Board and avoid furloughs of agency workers after almost a decade of stagnant budgets.

The Democratic congressman escalated a request he and more than 140 representatives made in April to increase funding for the NLRB, the federal agency tasked with investigating violations of workplace law. The agency has said that without a substantial increase in funding from Congress, it may have to start letting go of staff despite increasing workloads.

“The funding situation at the NLRB is dire,” Norcross said in a Nov. 29 letter addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Simply put, the status quo of NLRB funding is untenable. Continuing to underfund the NLRB not only puts workers’ rights at risk but also subjects employers to costly uncertainty.”

In its own letter to members of the House and Senate appropriations committees, the NLRB said it has received the same appropriation of $274 million for nine straight years. When adjusted for inflation, the budget has actually shrunk by a quarter since 2014, it said. At the same time, expenses have arisen for pay increases and field office relocations while the agency’s staff of 1,200 has dwindled.

Due to inadequate funding, overall staffing levels have dropped by 39% over the past two decades and field staffing has been cut in half, according to Norcross.

“Our field staff has done a tremendous job handling a historic surge in union election petitions and unfair labor practice charges, but this situation is unsustainable,” said NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo in a statement.

Total case intake in field offices increased 23% in 2022 from the year before. That’s the largest single-year increase since 1976 and the largest percentage increase since 1959, according to the agency.

In the letter to Congress, leaders said that while the pinch of rising costs are being felt across government, the NLRB cannot absorb increases as well as other agencies because it did not receive an appropriations boost in the 2022 omnibus bill.

“At this point, the agency has exhausted its ability to absorb cost increases through staff attrition and operational efficiencies,” according to the letter signed by Abruzzo and Chair Lauren McFerran. “Labor costs already comprise 80% of the NLRB’s budget.

The agency implemented a hiring freeze and will likely have to consider furloughs if funding doesn’t materialize in final budget negotiations by Dec. 16, it said.

“It’s at this really crucial point in time right now when we’re seeing the most labor activity that we’ve seen in decades across the country,” a spokesperson for the agency told Federal Times. “We’re completely starved for resources.”

Longer processing times aggravated by inadequate staffing levels can delay relief for injured parties, increase the amount a charged party owes in monetary damages, and keep potentially meritless allegations alive until they can be investigated fully, the agency said.

Norcross recommended leaders of the House Appropriations Committee before to commit at least $368 million to the agency.

“With this skyrocketing workload, the NLRB is now responsible for far more workers than a decade ago yet has been denied the funding to meet these statutory requirements,” Norcross said in a separate letter.

Employee salaries driving up costs

The 2023 budget request sets out nearly $320 million for the NLRB, an increase of 16%.

One of the biggest anticipated expenses is employee salaries. The agency expects to pay the 4.6% pay increase for employees declared by President Joe Biden in August. That will increase the NLRB’s total labor costs by $10.2 million this fiscal year.

Secondly, inflation has continued to deflate budgets, making a strong case for increased funding government-wide. The NLRB predicts that without operational changes and assuming 8.5% inflation, it will assume nearly $5 million in non-labor costs.

The agency is relocating three field offices this fiscal year at a cost of nearly $4 million.

Telework agreements impact workforce

The National Labor Relations Board Union, representing 700 attorneys, investigators and administrative professionals at field offices of the NLRB, has said that on top of current pressures at the agency, increasingly limited telework opportunities are aggravating the staffing crisis.

The union said its telework agreement that established five days of telework per pay period expires Dec. 23. Field employees will then be permitted three days of telework.

“We have heard from longtime NLRB employees who will be taking jobs in the private sector or at other government agencies which are offering more flexible telework schedules,” the union said in a tweet. “We are also aware of applicants who turned down NLRB job offers for employers who offer more telework.”

“We are committed to working with the NLRBU to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that increases telework for NLRB employees beyond what is provided under our current Memorandum of Understanding and ensures that we can effectively do the important work of protecting workers’ rights in this country,” said Abruzzo in a statement emailed to Federal Times.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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