Federal agencies cannot use department funds to buy disposable flatware for employee use, as those items don't directly support an agency's mission, according to a recent decision from the Government Accountability Office.

The Department of Commerce instituted a policy in 2009 to provide disposable cups, plates and utensils, along with hand sanitizer and disinfectants to employees at the National Weather Service offices in response to concerns over an outbreak of the H1N1 virus, colloquially called "swine flu."

In 2013, Commerce announced that it would no longer provide disposable flatware to the regional offices, stating that the "purchase was for the primary benefit of the employees" and not the agency's mission.

"Because Commerce has not demonstrated that the provision of items that would otherwise constitute a personal expense directly advances its statutory mission … Commerce may not use appropriated funds to purchase these items," GAO wrote, concurring with Commerce's decision. "Here, the disposable cups, plates and cutlery are primarily for the convenience of agency employees and thus constitute a personal expense."

Federal regulations allow agencies to purchase office supplies and other goods needed for day-to-day operations, however they cannot provide items for the personal use of their employees unless those items can be tied directly to the agency's mission.

The National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO) objected to the decision, citing a 2009 memorandum of understanding between the union and Commerce Department.

The matter went to arbitration in late 2013, with the arbitrator determining that disposable utensils led to better employee performance, as they were less likely to get sick and would spend less time cleaning non-disposable dishes in the break rooms.

However, a Dec. 23, 2014 decision from the GAO found the opposite, stating that disposable flatware constitutes a personal expense and the arbitrator failed to provide sufficient evidence that "an expenditure of this nature is an essential part of accomplishing a statutory responsibility of the agency."

"It is axiomatic that pubic funds are generally not available for the cost of personal items for the public's employees," GAO wrote, citing the decision in Navy v. Federal Labor Relations Authority. "An expense will not overcome this principle where it 'would serve no purpose other than accommodating employees' personal tastes — a purpose that generally cannot justify the expenditure of public funds.'"