Collective bargaining battles heat up as HHS declares impasse in NTEU negotiations

The president’s executive orders are prompting another set of messy, heated negotiations between the Health and Human Services Department and the National Treasury Employees Union.

NTEU President Tony Reardon briefs union members (NTEU photo)
NTEU President Tony Reardon briefs union members (NTEU photo)

The Health and Human Services Department has declared an impasse after both parties met last month to review of a few of the agency’s collective bargaining proposals, NTEU said. The union, in turn, has filed an unfair labor practice over what it’s described as “bad faith bargaining” from HHS.

With neither side in agreement, NTEU on Friday delivered a petition with nearly 5,500 signatures to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. The petition calls on Azar to direct his negotiating team to continue working with the union on a bargaining agreement.

NTEU National President Tony Reardon said his request to meet and present the petition to HHS leadership was denied.

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When asked about the meeting and the impasse between the two parties, an agency spokesman said in an email to Federal News Radio: “HHS is working with employees and their union representation to improve the operations of the department with the aim of making the federal government a better place to work and better able to deliver the services to the American people.”

NTEU said it approached HHS about reopening its contract back in July 2015. The two parties spent two years negotiating the ground rules for contract discussions but couldn’t agree.  The union took the case to the Federal Service Impasses Panel, a body of presidentially-appointed members who resolve labor-management disputes. The panel imposed ground rules on HHS and NTEU, but the union said the negotiation process has still stalled.

It was after the president signed executive orders on collective bargaining and official time that NTEU said HHS revived previously stalled conversations about a new contract.

“Certainly, since May 25 when the executive orders came out, we’re in a new world,” Reardon said Friday on a call with reporters.

HHS in June offered bargaining proposals to NTEU, which exclude 13 previously-agreed-to articles in NTEU’s current contract and detail negotiated policies on telework, alternative work schedules, transit subsidies, performance awards and appraisals and reassignments and details.

An agency official said HHS is not suggesting to eliminate “popular” telework programs and others. It’s proposing a “simpler contract” with the intent of achieving “consistency in how all HHS employees are treated,” reducing administrative burdens and decreasing costs and “maximizing resources,” the official added.

NTEU offered up its own proposals this summer. Both parties have met a few times briefly in July before HHS made a final offer, according to the union. When the parties couldn’t agree, another impasse was declared.

By NTEU’s account, the impasse isn’t necessary, because both parties haven’t had an opportunity to bargain over HHS’ proposals.

“We are not at impasse,” Reardon said. “The agency wouldn’t answer questions about their proposal. They wouldn’t sit down and have meaningful discussions with our bargaining team about their proposals [and] about the intent of their proposals, something that’s always been done at the bargaining table.”

But for HHS, the agency is simply following OPM’s July guidance, which directed agencies with open or rolled-over collective bargaining agreements to begin negotiations.

Did Education-AFGE dispute set the example?

Disagreements between the Education Department and the American Federation of Government Employees may serve as an example as to how NTEU’s current situation could continue.

During the negotiation process with the union, Education opted to implement its own collective bargaining document, which excluded articles on telework, disability accommodations and performance that were part of the previous contract the agency signed with AFGE back in 2013.

From Education’s perspective, this document replaces the agency’s prior contract with AFGE. But for the union, Education’s document doesn’t carry the weight of a new contract, because AFGE did not agree to it.

The union said last month that the Federal Labor Relations Authority agreed Education had bargained in “bad faith.” But FLRA’s word doesn’t carry much weight without a general counsel and therefore, a formal decision.

Since then, Education has announced its plans to change its current telework policy. The agency is giving employees until Oct. 1 to prepare to work at least four days a week in the office.

Reardon said his hope is that HHS and the agency’s leadership begin to start over and invite NTEU in to participate in “meaningful conversations that are collaborative and productive.”

But for now, without those conversations — and without a general counsel at the Federal Labor Relations Authority who can formally weigh in on NTEU’s submitted unfair labor practice charges — the union is waiting for a judge’s decision about the legality of the president’s recent executive orders.

Aug. 24 is the expected deadline for a decision, according to the D.C. district judge.

In the meantime, NTEU is also hopeful that more and more federal employees continue to speak out.

“We are going to help them do that, and we, as the union for at least federal employees in 33 different agencies, we’re going to help them do that and do it for them in many instances,” Reardon said.