Federal Workers Deserve a Negotiated “New Normal”
By Franco DiCroce & Chris Dols, 8/1/20
At many government offices, teleworking civil servants have worked productively since March. But in recent weeks, agencies have begun prematurely calling staff back to the office. The U.S. government is the nation’s second largest employer with 2.1 million employees, often concentrated locally in sufficient numbers that reopening endangers not only employees but also the general public at a time when COVID-19 infections reach new heights.
American labor protections aren’t what they once were, but these workers still have the right to negotiate when working conditions are changed. Through such negotiations federal unions can chart a path toward a responsible reopening prioritizing public health.
For many government jobs, telework works. Consider the experience of the NY District of the Army Corps of Engineers, where we work. We are hundreds of professionals with engineering, planning, regulatory, emergency-response and construction-management responsibilities. Since March, most of us have worked productively from home, keeping some of the region’s largest civil works and military construction projects and studies on track. These include infrastructure to reduce the region’s exposure to floods and feasibility studies such as to deepen the NY/NJ Harbor for the benefit of the national economy.
Certainly not all work can be accomplished remotely and many continue reporting to job sites to supervise construction, conduct environmental monitoring, and keep the harbor open and safe. Many of us joined the FEMA mission to design and construct the nation’s first emergency COVID-19 field hospitals. But, even much of that work was done from home. By allowing staff to telework whenever feasible, the Army Corps helped flatten the curve while simultaneously raising the bar of the region’s health care capacity.
Despite telework successes across the government, many federal workers are being asked to commute to their offices while the pandemic rages on. There are 7 metropolitan areas, including D.C., where federal employees comprise at least 10 percent of the workforce and another ten regions with density above 5 percent. At such concentrations, discontinuing telework directly exacerbates the public health risk. Furthermore, the government plays a pace-setter role in the broader economy. By reopening offices, agencies are irresponsibly signaling to all employers that it is safe to do so.
Of course, this is just the most recent example of blatant disregard for federal workers by the government’s political leadership. Last year’s shutdown was a dramatic display of our country’s annual tradition of treating civil servants like a rope in a tug of war between Congress and the President. But in the face of such disrespect and abuse, workers rarely acquiesce for long.
Consider, again, the experience of the Army Corps in New York. On March 12th, by which time the nature of the pandemic had become clear, official District policy was still to approve leave requests and telework only on a “very selective case-by-case” basis.
When union members coordinated a “Telework for Public Health” campaign, collectively submitting requests to work from home, District policy evolved rapidly. By March 16th, days before Governor Cuomo’s lockdown order went into effect, the District was beginning “maximum telework”.
Had politicians demonstrated more decisive leadership, such collective action would not have been necessary. Indeed, tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented. Among many lessons of this pandemic, it is clear that politicians cannot be trusted to make public health decisions without outside pressure enforcing the recommendations of scientists.
Today, federal workers are again in a position to provide leadership. Although the voice of organized labor has been steadily quieted within the government in recent decades, we still retain the right to negotiate the “impact and implementation” of changes in working conditions. So-called “I & I Bargaining” lets employees negotiate to alleviate any adverse effects of changes directed by management. This is so, even when the underlying changes that give rise to the harmful effects are not themselves subject to bargaining.
The current pandemic has led federal agencies to make numerous changes to working conditions. Whether because it is unsafe for employees to physically report to work, or because we risk exposure to a life-threatening virus, various arrangements should be negotiated so that the “new normal” is informed by science and enjoys the support of the workforce.
The priority should be for sustaining telework arrangements for all who can work from home. For others, health and safety protocols should be negotiated to mitigate exposure to the virus and facilitate testing and contact tracing. Hazard pay for employees exposed to the virus should be on the table, too, especially for those working in “hot spots” such as to construct emergency field hospitals.
By insisting on impact negotiations for the benefit of personal and public health, federal workers can be pace-setters in their own right, leading the way to reopening on workers’ terms supported by science, not politics.
Franco DiCroce and Chris Dols are the President and Vice-President of Local 98 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, representing non-supervisory staff at the NY District of the Army Corps of Engineers