Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 4 at 2:47 p.m. to include more information about union responses.
The Federal Aviation Administration notified employees on Thursday that it will pause changes to telework agreements after announcing its intent two weeks ago to bring employees back to the office more frequently this fall.
In an email obtained by Federal Times, the agency acknowledged there have been questions and concerns from employees about the return-to-office plan, which the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union said conflicts with the labor agreement that represents 11,000 employees.
“First, we will immediately increase our collaboration across the agency and with our labor partners as we gather input on the business guidance for managers to use when updating telework agreements,” the Aug. 3 email said. “Second, until more work is done, we will hold on revising any current telework agreements, except where driven by immediate business needs, and in accordance with collective bargaining agreements.”
Dave Spero, national president of PASS, on Friday said in a message to members that he commends the agency for listening to concerns.
“I am not aware of what collaboration would look like as it is PASS’s position that a business case has yet to be made for why current telework agreements should change,” he said. “As I have stated since the July 20 announcement, the FAA is required to negotiate with the union on this issue.”
Last month, the agency set a new expectation for teleworkers and remote workers that would mandate an in-office presence at least three days per week this fall.
A spokesperson for the agency did not elaborate further on what led to this update or whether the return date of Oct. 9 would be postponed, saying only that “the agency will increase its in-office presence” and get further input.
The agency maintained that while all agencies are grappling with how to implement and interpret the White House’s directives to increase in-person work in a way that is “meaningful” — per the language of the memos — the FAA’s mission will require collaboration and engagement in the future.
“This business guidance will answer questions about pre-pandemic and future workplace flexibilities,” the email said.
It also said it will be looking at other needs such as office space, hybrid technology and facility amenities.
On July 21, a day after the agency alerted employees to re-entry plans, PASS filed a national grievance that alleged the agency’s intent to limit workplace flexibilities is a significant change to working conditions that must be bargained.
PASS also claimed that it was not given advance notice of the policy, even though it believed it would be informed ahead of time by agency labor officials.
“I spoke to Acting FAA Administrator Polly Trottenberg after we found out that the message had gone to employees with a token heads up given to us just minutes before,” said Spero in a statement on July 24. “I told her in no uncertain terms that this action was in clear violation of our contracts.”
The grievance also claims the agency did not back up its decision to alter telework flexibilities with data, nor did it provide a feedback mechanism, as encouraged by the Office of Management and Budget’s memo.
“This ill-advised change to telework policy tramples on our contracts,” Spero said. “We are constantly being told that this is the most labor-friendly administration in the history of this country, I call on the Biden administration to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that it is.”
The National Federation of Federal Employees union also said in a video statement it was not consulted on the policy change and has filed a national grievance.
“We are going to fight this misguided policy,” said Randy Erwin, national president.
Brad Davidson, a regional union leader for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, wrote in a July 26 update that his union, too, expect no changes to current telework programs that are codified in agreements.
“I do anticipate that we will have some potential future issues with the agency as it relates to telework in and around Washington DC,” he said in the post. “The OMB memo we believe is initially intended to address the Washington, D.C., area and the struggling businesses and tax base of the district. DC relies heavily on the federal worker and the daily revenue that is produced from our presence in the district with travel, parking, fuel, transportation, hotel usage, and food purchases.”
The Department of Transportation, which houses the FAA, also announced its return-to-office plans last month, which aviation employees online in forums said was more generous than what they were being afforded.
Several more agencies, including the the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Department of Education, Department of Veterans Affairs, have moved to increase in-office work as Congress has put increasing pressure on executive agencies to either cut back on telework or give up leases for empty office space.
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.