By several metrics, the National Labor Relations board has spent the past decade reworking itself into a more effective and less wasteful agency, as the Government Accountability Office found in its March 29 report that the agency’s spending dropped by about 17 percent from 2010 to 2019, its workforce decreased by 26 percent and the time it took to process cases decreased.

But that shift toward efficiency may have come at the cost of case quality and the wellbeing of agency staff, as a smaller number of employees ended up having to process more cases at greater rates.

“The number of NLRB staff decreased from 1,733 in fiscal year 2010 to 1,281 in fiscal year 2019, or by 26 percent. NLRB officials and internal and external stakeholders partly attributed the change to a 22 percent decline in NLRB’s caseload. Staff reductions were about four times greater (33 percent compared with 8 percent) in NLRB’s regional offices, where casework originates, than in headquarters,” the report said.

“While NLRB officials said they believe the emphasis on increased timeliness has helped resolve cases more promptly, several internal stakeholders said they believe it has negatively affected case quality and staff morale. Data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey show NLRB employees were increasingly dissatisfied with senior leaders’ policies, resource sufficiency and their overall organization in recent years, ranking last out of all 17 medium-sized federal agencies in 2019.”

The strain on the workforce is particularly targeted in the NLRB regional offices, which are responsible for most of the initial casework for unfair labor practice and representation filings.

The workforce at regional offices dropped 33 percent from 2010 to 2019, with a concentrated decrease of 17 percent just since 2016.

“Additionally, several other stakeholders said that NLRB centralized work previously done in the regions — such as compliance work, translation services, and decision writing — which effectively took resources away from regions and left some regions understaffed,” the report said.

The 22 percent drop in caseload — which has been attributed to a decrease in the number of Americans overall that are part of unions — therefore does not match the rate of decline in regional office workforces at the agency.

It is also possible that case numbers could increase, if Biden administration initiatives to increase union protections across the U.S. are successful.

Pressure to improve the timeliness of case processing increased in 2019 when the agency instituted a plan to reduce the average time to process cases by five percent per year for the next four years, the end result of which would be a 20 percent reduction in case times.

“Three internal stakeholders said they believe NLRB policies emphasizing timeliness are negatively affecting the quality of investigations and staff morale. Two of these stakeholders pointed to a recent policy change as an example. In 2019, NLRB’s Division of Operations-Management issued a memorandum discouraging the use of an investigative subpoena — an order to compel testimony by a witness or obtain documentary evidence — when the regional director could issue a complaint based on the evidence available,” the report said.

“The memorandum notes that the use of investigative subpoenas could unnecessarily prolong the investigation of an unfair labor practice charge. From fiscal years 2018 to 2019, there was a nearly 60 percent decrease in the number of investigative subpoenas issued in the regions. Two internal stakeholders said they believe investigative subpoenas are an important tool to collect evidence and determine whether a case has merit, and its decreased use has had a negative effect on the quality of investigations.”

In that same time that NLRB leadership pressed for faster case processing, employee satisfaction with their workloads and supervisors took a downturn at the agency, according to results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Notably, the 51 percent of employees at regional offices that believed they had a manageable caseload in 2017 fell to just 35 percent in 2019, and headquarters staff’s satisfaction with their workloads dropped from 72 percent to 56 percent during that time.

“Several internal stakeholders attributed low staff morale to causes such as decreased case processing time, understaffing and pressure from resulting heavier workloads,” the report said.

“For example, one internal stakeholder said the emphasis on timeliness incentivizes regional directors to direct more resources toward cases that are less likely to have merit or otherwise be resolved quickly and not pursue more meaningful — though time-intensive — cases. Three internal stakeholders said they believe an emphasis on timeliness can lead staff to cut corners or sacrifice case quality, while another said that it creates excessive burden on staff.”

And though agency leaders told GAO that it had improved efficiency with fewer staff in part because of investments in new technology, two people interviewed by the watchdog said that such technology had “minimal effect” on caseloads.

The agency’s own union has also had problems with leadership, as the report found that disagreements over official time and lack of union involvement in new management initiatives have led to a “contentious” relationship between the two.

GAO concluded that the NLRB ultimately didn’t properly measure the quantitative and qualitative impacts of its management and staffing policies by using established measures like the FEVS. The watchdog recommended that NLRB develop better performance measures, be more transparent with employee unions and better evaluate pressure on agency personnel.

The agency agreed with the recommendations and said that it had adjusted its fiscal year 2021 operating plan to fund more positions at struggling offices.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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