The Department of Health and Human Services recently added to already testy negotiations with a federal employee union by calling for the authority to limit employee telework to one day a week with the option to eliminate it entirely without prior notification.

“For those who wonder why HHS has treated contract negotiations with such disdain, this latest proposal proves that their intent is to roll back all the progress that HHS employees have made in the workplace,” National Treasury Employee Union National President Tony Reardon said in a news release.

“All these years, HHS has never reported problems with the agency’s carefully managed telework program, and now they suddenly want to abolish it.”

The change to telework, issued in a Dec. 13 negotiations proposal, would also restrict telework to those employees that had gone through at least one appraisal period and received a “fully successful” rating or above.

“Telework is a smart, cost-effective workplace policy that has been shown to increase productivity, cut administrative and real-estate costs and reduce traffic congestion,” Reardon said.

“Arbitrarily eliminating telework would have a devastating impact on current workers and likely risks skilled workers running for the exits and turning down job offers and will certainly make the U.S. government an outdated employer.”

The Office of Personnel Management’s March 2018 Federal Work-Life survey found that feds who use work schedule flexibilities, such as telework, are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs and to exceed standards on their performance appraisals.

Negotiations between NTEU and HHS had already proved difficult, as the agency declared negotiations to be at an impasse in July 2018 and sought assistance from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and from the Federal Services Impasse Panel after only one day of initial discussions.

“Because the two parties have not reached a true impasse, I urge HHS to bargain in good faith with NTEU to resolve these disagreements,” wrote Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in a Dec. 13 letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

“I am deeply concerned that FMCS only plans to offer assistance for two weeks rather that the full 30 days directed by FSIP. Further, I am concerned that, during the first week of mediation, HHS proposed radical changes to articles affecting employee leave with no explanation. There are significant issues up for discussion that warrant thoughtful, good faith bargaining to ensure the success of both HHS and its employees.”

Harris also called HHS’s negotiation tactics a part of “the administration’s disturbing pattern of hostility toward federal employees and the labor organizations that represent them.”

But an HHS spokesperson said that the proposed contract is more about management authority than curbing employee telework:

“HHS is not proposing to eliminate or reduce telework. Instead, HHS is setting the expectation that management has the right to make the determination of the appropriate workplace structure based on the need for efficiency and effectiveness.”