The National Treasury Employees Union said it plans to take another step toward advocating for remote work.
After the union filed a grievance over suspended negotiations on a remote-work pilot program, the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Fiscal Service denied allegations of bad-faith bargaining in a response written by Commissioner Timothy Gribben obtained by Federal Times. The union said it’s prepared to seek arbitration, though it had not officially done so as of Aug. 16.
“NTEU is disappointed that the Bureau of Fiscal Service continues to refuse to implement the agreement on a remote work pilot that we had agreed on,” said NTEU National President Tony Reardon in a statement to Federal Times. “NTEU looks forward to making our case to an arbitrator.”
On July 27, representatives from NTEU met with agency officials to present their grievance. Since then, Gribben issued a memorandum saying that while he regrets that the manner in which negotiations ended may have been unexpected, he disagrees that the decision breached the labor agreement.
According to the memo, BFS ended negotiations after being directed to do so by Fiscal Assistant Secretary David Lebryk.
A spokesperson for the bureau declined to provide comment. The union maintains that it has not been given a reason for the pilot negotiations being pulled.
Matthew Floyd, NTEU vice president for chapter 190, said in an interview that he’s been in virtual meetings during which everyone was present, on camera and exchanging ideas.
“I don’t feel that would’ve been any different had we been sitting at a table in a conference room,” he said.
What is the impact of telework on productivity?
Other colleagues and NTEU members agreed that remote work had no adverse effects on productivity. NTEU represents 150,000 federal workers in 34 agencies and departments, including Treasury.
“We believe firmly that BFS should stand by what it agreed to,” Reardon said. “A remote work pilot would provide valuable data to BFS and NTEU although employees have already proven that they can get the job done working remotely. The pandemic was a pilot in and of itself.”
NTEU’s case argues that once parties begin bargaining, they must do so to completion and in good faith as required by federal statute and the labor agreement.
The union alleged that process was violated when BFS refused to consider the remote work pilot program after most employees had been 100% teleworking since March 2020. Rani Rolston, counsel for the union, said that bureau employees were disappointed and surprised.
“When that news broke in the commissioner’s town hall meeting, it was eerily silent for almost the rest of the day,” Floyd said. “... This literally took the wind out of everybody’s sails when that news was broken to us.”
National President Reardon, who has been outspoken about the union’s telework agreements with more than eight federal offices, reiterated the need for support from Congress in his testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations on July 21.
“The use of telework in the federal sector has been a win not just for employees but for management who can more effectively recruit workers without losing productivity, for taxpayers who save on federal building leasing costs, and for the environment, which benefits from reduced pollution from commuting,” he said.
Reardon and others have also pointed to taxpayer savings as a mutual benefit of telework.
What’s the flexible work experience in other federal agencies?
A council of the American Federation of Government Employees said it will seek arbitration over the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s denial of a national remote work grievance, Federal Times previously reported.
The Federal Communications Commission moved to a new office that is 30% smaller and estimated it will save as much as $119 million over the 15 years of the new lease.
At the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, where more than 85 percent of the trademark attorneys participate in telework, working outside the office saves the agency $12.5 million a year in leasing costs.
Meanwhile, members of Congress have been discussing the impact of telework and remote work on government operations, with Republicans sounding the alarm over a lack of oversight and data on pandemic productivity.
“It’s long past time that people return to work in person,” said Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Republican from Georgia, during a Subcommittee on Government Operations hearing over the future of federal work last month.
At the same time, the White House’s Office of Personnel Management has issued guidance that has been met with mixed implementation for federal managers, employees and agencies. Though it bestows the right to determine workplace flexibility on agency heads, OPM’s guidance also says agencies should strive to fully integrate telework into their culture.
Remote work, OPM says, can be a strategy for agency retention and talent acquisition, but may require additional considerations for which fewer employees or positions may be eligible.
As agencies struggle to remain competitive in the grab for talent, roughly 25% to 35% of U.S. workers are working from home.
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.