8/22/11: The pre-scheduled Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiating sessions agreed upon last spring by the Union and the SEC came to an end last week. As the parties seek to schedule further mediated negotiating sessions this fall, many of the most important issues to agency employees remain unresolved due to the SEC’s continuing demands to substantially reduce or eliminate employee benefits that have served for years as the foundation for the SEC’s successful work-life programs. Management’s aggressive positions are exemplified by its most recent proposals last week to cut back on telework, including by eliminating the Expanded Telework Program entirely, and to reduce participation in the Student Loan Repayment Program.
Substantially Reducing Telework
Among the SEC’s more aggressive moves has been its continuing attack upon the agency’s highly successful telework program, which is utilized by a sizeable majority of SEC employees. The SEC has been unrelenting in its push for contract provisions aimed at substantially reducing access to this important benefit. It has not, however, articulated any reasoned basis for doing so, or even attempted to provide any data at all that suggest that telework has been anything other than an unqualified success at the SEC, as it has been across the Federal government and in the private sector. Its most recent telework proposals include:
Continuing to demand a substantial change to the basic definition of “telework” which would identify it as a “management option to facilitate work accomplishment.” Because “facilitate” means “make easier,” this change would fundamentally transform the standard for telework from one that requires an employee to perform at least at the same level at home as he or she would at the office (as telework is defined in other federal agencies), to a standard that would require managers to determine that an employee will be able to perform work more easily at home than in the office. The SEC has provided no principled reason for insisting upon this radical change to the contract, which obviously would lead to more denials of telework requests.
Pushing for a new provision that would allow management to choose to discontinue an employee’s telework arrangement at any time, without the need to make any showing that the telework in question adversely impacted the employee’s work, as is currently required.
Demanding a provision that would terminate the Expanded Telework Program (under which scores of SEC employees have been permitted to telework more than two days per week under certain circumstances) for everyone at the agency within 30 days of the effective date of the new contract. The SEC makes this proposal notwithstanding the fact that the Expanded Telework Program has been an unqualified success by every measure, including productivity, timeliness, performance and employee satisfaction. Indeed, the agency’s own survey of SEC managers currently supervising program participants reveals that the vast majority continue to be supportive of their employees’ expanded telework arrangements and agree that there has been no decline in the quantity, accuracy and timeliness of their work product.
It is clear from the SEC’s positions that the agency simply opposes the use of telework as a flexible working arrangement. The many benefits of telework, however, are substantial and well-documented. It affords a better quality of life to SEC employees by offering them significantly more flexibility in their day to day schedules and by permitting them to spend more time with their families rather than wasting hours on long commutes. It also reduces their commuting expenses and assists in decreasing our nation’s dependence upon foreign oil at a time when gasoline prices are soaring nationwide. In addition, it substantially decreases the agency’s “carbon footprint,” providing an important collateral benefit for our environment. It gives the SEC a great recruiting tool that makes the agency even more competitive in the marketplace. And it offers the agency a way to save money on office space during a period in which SEC management is searching for monetary savings and coming under increasing scrutiny for its leasing practices.
For all of these reasons, telework opportunities have been steadily expanding in the private sector for years and, in the federal sector, telework is now supported by OPM, the President and the Congress. Just last year Congress enacted the Telework Enhancement Act, which is intended to encourage federal agencies to better leverage technology to maximize the use of telework, to aid in recruiting new Federal workers, retain valuable talent and allow the government to maintain productivity in the event of an emergency. The SEC’s positions are completely and inexplicably at odds with this trend.
Weakening the Student Loan Repayment Program
As is the case with telework, the SEC’s latest proposals for the Student Loan Repayment Program are also focused upon making it easier for managers to deny participation in this important recruitment and retention program. Those proposals include:
Proposing to remove the provision permitting an employee to nominate him or herself for participation in the Student Loan Repayment Program, which would leave it solely up to management to nominate employees. Obviously, this would allow managers to block participation of anyone simply by refusing to nominate them, without reference to any standard for such refusal.
Seeking to insert the word “minimally” before “eligible” in the following sentence – “To be eligible for participation in the Student Loan Repayment Program, an employee must have completed one year of service with the Employer, maintained an acceptable level of performance, and meet the eligibility requirements outlined in 5 C.F.R. §537.104.” By attempting to change this provision to read “minimally eligible,” management is seeking to make it clear that it can deny the applications of fully eligible employees – something that it has not done in the past.
Attempting to delete the phrase “one or more of the following” from the provision that lists the types of contributions that would warrant participation in the program. This change would mean that employees must have made all of the types of contributions in the preceding year that are listed in the article – a standard that very few employees could possibly meet.
Proposing a new provision stating that all decisions on participation in the program will be totally at the discretion of management, similar to its current total discretion over whether or not to award year end Special Act Awards. This provision would further strengthen management’s ability to deny as many applications as it wants without reference to any principled standard.
Taken together, these proposed changes make it clear that management is seeking to expand its authority to deny participation in the Student Loan Repayment Program. This should come as no surprise, given the fact that the agency has been eyeing the program over the summer as a potential “cost savings” expense reduction, even though the program's cost is de minimis. Indeed, the agency is spending far more on consultants to come up with cost savings this year than it is on the Student Loan Repayment Program.
When the SEC recruited the employees who are currently participating in this program, it marketed the Student Loan Repayment Program as one of the benefits that they would enjoy if they accepted a job at the agency. Changing the standards to make it easier to deny them that benefit now would amount to a bait and switch. Furthermore, all of the employees who are participating in this program have been required to sign three-year service agreements. They did so with the understanding that they could participate in the program each year. Now they could find themselves with a substantial hit to their compensation package, and yet they will be unable to leave the SEC to obtain a job with better compensation and/or benefits without breaching their agreement.
Equally important, new recruits will see how current employees are being treated, and they will come to view the student loan benefit with a jaundiced eye, reducing its value as a recruitment tool.
The SEC’s Bargaining Positions Ultimately Could Cause Lasting Harm to Our Agency
In the past couple of OPM Federal employee surveys, the agency has dropped from third place on the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” list to twenty-fourth place. One of the few consistently bright spots in that survey data, however, has been SEC employees’ positive views of the work-life benefits that the Union has negotiated for them. Now SEC senior management appears determined to attack those benefits during the CBA negotiations.
The SEC’s new anti-employee tactics could not have come at a worse time. Indeed, even without the proposed cuts to work-life programs, it would be hard to imagine a more difficult period for attracting and retaining the best employees to any Federal agency. Federal employees are already being attacked and denigrated on a regular basis. Their pay has been frozen, and they face a steady torrent of new proposals to cut their pay, reduce their pensions, furlough them, shut down the government and slash the budgets of their agencies.
During such a generally tough time for Federal agency recruitment and retention, the SEC should be doing everything in its power to increase the overall attractiveness of a public service career at the agency, not seeking to reduce it.
The Union will continue to stand fast against the SEC’s ill-conceived proposals. As always, thank you to the majority of SEC employees who support the Union’s efforts as dues paying members, without whom the agency would not be required to negotiate and justify before slashing important employee benefits. We hope that others will continue to join our growing ranks to increase our strength during these difficult times.