SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION BALTIMORE, MARYLAND and AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

United States of America

BEFORE THE FEDERAL SERVICE IMPASSES PANEL

 

In the Matter of

SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

and

AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT

EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

Case No. 00 FSIP 18

DECISION AND ORDER

    The American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO (Union) filed a request for assistance with the Federal Service Impasses Panel (Panel) to consider a negotiation impasse under the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (Statute), 5 U.S.C. § 7119, between it and the Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland (Employer or SSA).

    After investigating the request for assistance, the Panel determined that the dispute, which arises from bargaining over service observation (telephone monitoring) of employees, should be resolved through an informal conference between a Panel representative and the parties. If no settlement was reached, the representative would notify the Panel of the status of the dispute, including the parties’ final offers and her recommendations for resolving the matter. After considering this information, the Panel would take whatever action it deemed appropriate to resolve the impasse, including the issuance of a binding decision.

    Accordingly, Panel Chair Bonnie Prouty Castrey conducted an informal conference with the parties on January 27, 2000, in the Panel’s offices in Washington, D.C.(1) While the parties were able to narrow the issues, they were not successful in reaching a complete resolution. The parties have submitted their final offers on the remaining issues. Ms. Castrey has reported to the Panel and it has now considered the entire record, including the parties’ arguments and supporting evidence.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer’s mission is to administer retirement, Medicare, disability, survivor, and Supplemental Security Income entitlement programs. The Union represents approximately 48,000 employees in a nationwide consolidated unit; of those, approximately 30,000 field office employees who work in District and Branch offices, primarily as claims and service representatives, are affected by this dispute. The parties’ master collective-bargaining agreement (MCBA), which was to have expired on March 5, 1999, has been extended until a successor agreement is implemented. At the time of this decision, the parties were in the process of executing a new MCBA.

    Pursuant to Federal regulations, 20 C.F.R. § 422.705, et seq., the Commissioner of SSA has the authority to approve public service monitoring of telephone calls at SSA facilities. The dispute herein arose when the Employer proposed implementing service observation throughout its 1,300 field offices. Similar practices have been in effect for several years at the Employer’s Teleservice Centers where the telephone technology allows monitors to know, with certainty, that calls on particular telephone lines are claims related and not personal. The same technology, however, does not exist, as yet, in the field offices, making it possible for managers to inadvertently select a call for monitoring that is not work-related.

    Essentially, the parties have agreed to three different types of service observation of employee telephone calls: (1) Tier I observation, the purpose of which is to provide individual feedback to employees for training purposes; (2) Tier II observation, which is an "unannounced, random sampling (of telephone calls) to provide unit/site level quality data and (for) training needs;" and (3) unannounced service observation which is triggered by a monitor’s observance of an employee conduct problem during Tier I or Tier II monitoring.

ISSUES AT IMPASSE

    The following issues remain unresolved with respect to the procedures for implementing service observation in field offices: (1) for Tier I observation, whether employees should be given specific or general notice that their calls are to be monitored; (2) procedures for randomly selecting employees for Tier II observation; (3) with respect to unannounced service observation relating to an employee conduct problem, the definition of a "conduct problem;" whether the employee should be given an opportunity to respond to an allegation of a conduct problem; and whether documents relating to the conduct problem should be removed from files if the supervisor ultimately determines that an unannounced service observation is not warranted; (4) the number of calls per month which may be monitored; (5) whether the list of telephone extensions to be monitored and those to be excluded from monitoring should be certified by the vendor, with the parties to bargain locally over any changes to the certification; and (6) whether implementation of telephone monitoring should take place piecemeal throughout the 1,300 field offices, and the extent of local and national-level bargaining over the duration of service observation.

1. Notice Of Tier I Service Observation

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes that "management [] notify the employee immediately before conducting service observations." Providing such notice is consistent with the customer service practices of may companies which do business via telephone. Furthermore, it is likely to have the effect of reducing employees’ stress caused by the anticipation of having their conversations monitored because employees would know, with certainty, which calls are being observed. Moreover, it is unlikely that the integrity of the information obtained by the Employer during monitoring would be jeopardized by providing employees with "up front" notice that a call is to be monitored.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer proposes that "management [] notify the employee in the week prior to conducting service observations." Notice during the preceding week should help stem employees’ anxiety over when calls are to be monitored since they would know, generally, when their calls are to be observed. The Union’s proposal, on the other hand, would tend to defeat the Employer’s objective of obtaining "quality information" on how employees handle calls. In this regard, if employees know that their calls are being monitored they are likely to be "guarded" in their conversations with members of the public thereby hindering the Employer in making assessments for training purposes on employee skills.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having considered the parties’ evidence and arguments on this issue, we conclude that the dispute should be resolved on the basis of a compromise solution. While sympathetic to the Union’s concern that telephone monitoring may cause stressful situations for employees, we find that in order for the Employer to fulfill the parties’ agreed upon objective of conducting Tier I service observations, which is to "provide feedback (to employees) for training needs," the best assessment of an employee’s performance on incoming calls from the public can be made when employees are less "guarded" about these conversations. Therefore, we do not favor the Union’s proposal for "up front" notice to an employee that a call is to be monitored. As we read the Employer’s proposal, however, employees could be required to wait up to 10 workdays to actually be monitored after notification. This appears to be an unnecessarily long period of time to place employees under the stress of service observation. Accordingly, we shall order wording that employees be provided with 3 workdays notice prior to receiving service observation. Although this compromise effectively informs employees of the day on which monitoring will occur, in our view, the employee’s uncertainty as to which calls will be monitored during that day is sufficient to meet the objectives of Tier I observation without causing undue stress. Morever, because Tier I observation is for training purposes, and not part of a formal employee evaluation process, we believe that a 3-workday notice period should also permit employees to be better prepared when the actual monitoring occurs.

2. Procedures For Randomly Selecting Employees For Tier II Service Observation

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes the following:

The Excel program will be completed by the last week of the month before it is used in an office. The program for all offices will be done at the Regional Office level. Copies will be sent to management and Union designee. A copy of the office roster and number assigned to each employee will also be supplied to the Union. The Excel program will utilize the number of employees in a specific office and assign the time that they will be monitored. A 3-hour window of either morning or afternoon could be used.

The Union should be provided with notice as to which employees have been monitored so that it can evaluate whether the selection of employees who have been subject to service observation is fair, equitable, and truly random. The Union has a keen interest in preventing situations where employees may be targeted continually for service observation and, therefore, to further this objective, it should be allowed to have access to information on which employees have been monitored. Moreover, the proposed procedures would establish a uniform practice to be followed in all field offices, thereby helping to ensure consistency and continuity.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Panel should direct the Union to withdraw its proposal because it has not demonstrated a need to be involved in the selection process. In this regard, the Excel computer program, which the parties have agreed to use to randomly identify employees who are to be monitored, eliminates any negative human motivations for selecting particular employees. Moreover, information concerning the identities of individuals who are to be monitored should not be disseminated because it opens the possibility that employees could learn when their telephone calls are to be monitored; such notice to employees could jeopardize the integrity of the information obtained during the service observation.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having carefully reviewed the arguments presented, we are persuaded that a compromise solution should be imposed to resolve the parties’ impasse over this issue. In our view, since Tier II observations are intended to be unannounced, it would be imprudent for the Employer to release information potentially revealing the identities of employees to be monitored, as well as when the service observations are to occur. Nevertheless, we believe it is warranted for the Union to have some oversight role in the process of selecting employees which would enable it to identify the development of inequities which may occur in the random selection of employees who are to be monitored under Tier II. Accordingly, we shall order that at the end of each month the Union shall be provided with a copy of the random sample of employees who were monitored during each week of that month. Thus, the Union would have information which would allow it to detect inequities in the selection process which it then could take steps to correct.(2)

3. Unannounced Service Observations Relating To An Employee Conduct Problem

    a. The Union’s Position

    According to the Union’s proposal, a "conduct problem" would be defined as "rude telephone behavior, hang-ups without cause, making personal calls while callers are on hold, etc." Employees would be given 10 workdays in which to respond to allegations of a conduct problem. If the supervisor determines that unannounced service observations are not warranted, documents related thereto would be removed from any files.

    Defining the term "conduct problem" would establish the parameters that give rise to unannounced service observations. Including the word "etc." in the definition indicates that the situations described are illustrative of a conduct problem rather than an all-inclusive listing. Employees should be given an opportunity to respond to an allegation of a conduct problem because doing so is a routine part of due process; moreover, employees should have a right to respond, since the allegation could lead to disciplinary action. There also is the potential that an employee’s response may produce information which causes a supervisor to change his/her mind about the need for unannounced service observations. Finally, in the interest of fairness, if a supervisor determines an unannounced service observation is unnecessary, all documents concerning the purported conduct problem should be purged.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    In essence, the Panel should direct the Union to withdraw its proposal because defining which "conduct problems" give rise to unannounced service observations may impede management’s ability to correct a problem that does not fall within the definition. Thus, the Union’s proposal may excessively interfere with management’s right under 5 U.S.C. § 7106(a)(2)(A) to take disciplinary actions against employees. There is no need to provide employees with a right to respond to counseling, since employees already have procedural safeguards under the parties’ negotiated grievance procedure.

CONCLUSIONS

    After considering the parties’ positions on this issue, we conclude that it should be resolved on the basis of the Union’s proposal, modified to eliminate the word "etc." from the definition. In this regard, we shall order the following wording: "Conduct problems include, but are not limited to, rude telephone behavior, hang-ups without cause, and making personal calls while callers are on hold." In our view, using the phrase "but are not limited to," provides a better indication that the examples of conduct problems in the definition are not all inclusive and that unannounced service observations may be triggered by other types of conduct not specifically mentioned in the definition.

4. Number Of Calls To Be Monitored Each Month

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes that each employee be subject to service observation on three to five calls per month. In its view, a minimum number of three observations per employee per month is reasonable because the Employer’s assessment of how an employee handles calls should be made on the basis of observing several calls rather than merely one. Furthermore, equitable treatment of both trainees and more senior employees would be assured because trainees could not be singled out, perhaps unfairly, for an increased number of service observations.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer proposes that "(e)xperienced employees (employees having at least 1 year in their current position) will be subject to service observation of 1 to 5 calls per month per employee. . . . Unlimited service observation can be conducted on trainees (employees with less than 1 year in their current position)." The proposal provides for a reasonable number of service observations, under both Tier I and Tier II. It also would allow for more opportunities to observe trainees who are likely to require greater scrutiny than experienced employees. Furthermore, there should be greater flexibility with respect to experienced employees because management may have other, more pressing, priorities than conducting monitoring.

CONCLUSIONS

    Upon careful consideration of the record presented by the parties on this issue, we conclude that it should be resolved on the basis of the Employer’s proposal. Potentially, there are many factors for management to weigh when it determines the number of service calls that are to be monitored in a particular month. Because circumstances may change, we believe the Employer should have maximum flexibility to determine that number. In this regard, the Employer’s proposal allows for a broader range of service observations each month than the Union’s. As to trainees, in agreement with the Employer’s position, such employees are likely to require greater oversight during their first year and, therefore, management should not be restricted on the number of calls it monitors each month with respect to them. Accordingly, we shall order the parties to adopt the Employer’s proposal.

5. Certification Of Telephone Extensions

    a. The Union’s Position

    Essentially, the Union proposes that the Employer should require the vendor to certify which telephone extensions may be monitored and those not subject to monitoring. Changes in certifications would be negotiated by the parties at the local level. A vendor’s certification would give employees a measure of confidence that certain telephone extensions are not to be monitored and, therefore, are appropriate for personal calls.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Panel should order the Union to withdraw its proposal because there is no need for a vendor to certify telephone extensions. In this connection, the Employer already has agreed to identify which telephone lines will be subject to monitoring, as well as those which are excluded from monitoring; furthermore, the Union is to be provided with a listing. Certification by a vendor serves no useful purpose. Moreover, the Union cannot dictate work that is to be performed by non-employee vendors.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having considered the positions presented by the parties, we are persuaded that the Union should withdraw its proposal. Preliminarily, the issue of trust lies at the heart of this matter. Apparently, the assurances that the Employer has given as to which telephone lines will be subject to service observation are insufficient to assuage Union fears that management, nevertheless, may monitor calls on telephone extensions that were not intended to be monitored. In our view, the Union’s concerns are unsubstantiated. Furthermore, even assuming that vendors were to certify the status of telephone extensions, as the Union proposes, this would still fail to guarantee what it desires. On the other hand, the Employer already is committed to labeling telephones which are subject to service observation, and it has agreed to monitor only identified extensions and to provide the Union with a listing of extensions that are excluded from monitoring. Given these agreements between the parties, in our view, requiring vendor certification may serve no useful purpose and could present the Employer with a needless, additional expense. Moreover, local negotiations over any changes in vendor certification of telephone lines, as the Union proposes, could be protracted and lead to impasses. For all these reasons, we shall order the Union to withdraw its proposal.

6. Implementation Of Service Observation

    a. The Union’s Position

    In essence, the Employer would implement service observation in 100 field offices per month until all field offices have telephone monitoring. The parties would negotiate locally over how long service observation would remain in effect in a particular office, with a typical duration to range from 6 to 9 months. Any continuation of service observation beyond the period negotiated locally would be bargained by the parties at the national level pursuant to Article 4 ("Negotiations During the Term of the Agreement on Management-Initiated Changes") of the parties’ MCBA. The Employer would review data obtained from service observations to determine whether it wishes the initiative to continue. This data, as well as any rationale for continuing service observation, would be shared with the Union.

    There is no need to permanently implement service observation because after being utilized for several months, the Employer may conclude that there is no further need for it. Since situations vary in field offices, the parties at the local levels should have control over the duration of implementation, and the Union’s proposal would further that objective. The Employer has not articulated a need for simultaneous implementation of service observation in all field offices; therefore, a piecemeal approach to implementation is a reasonable alternative. Finally, the proposal operates, essentially, as a reopener provision which would allow the parties at the national level the opportunity to revisit the matter after having experienced nationwide implementation.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Union should be required to withdraw its proposal because determinations over when service observation is to be implemented in field offices, and the duration of the implementation, should be at the Employer’s discretion.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having carefully considered the parties’ positions on this issue, we shall order the Union to withdraw its proposal. In our view, the proposal could lead to an undesirable situation where parties at the local level are involved in perpetual negotiations, and potential impasses, over the duration of service observation in various field offices.(3) Implementing service observation in field offices for periods of 6 to 9 months essentially would be the equivalent of a short-term test of service observation. In this regard, however, the parties already have had a 6-month pilot program for service observation in field offices. Since the parties’ agreement on service observation is silent with respect to its duration, the general rule is that it would run concurrently with their MCBA.(4)

ORDER

    Pursuant to the authority vested in it by the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute, 5 U.S.C. § 7119, and because of the failure of the parties to resolve their dispute during the course of the proceedings instituted under the Panel’s regulations 5 C.F.R. § 2471.6(a)(2), the Federal Service Impasses Panel under 5 C.F.R. § 2471.11(a) of its regulations hereby orders adoption of the following:

1. Notice Of Tier I Service Observation

    The parties shall adopt the Employer’s proposal, modified to require the Employer to notify an employee 3 workdays prior to conducting service observation of the employee’s calls.

2. Procedures For Randomly Selecting Employees For Tier II Service Observation

    The parties shall adopt the following wording: