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

 

 

In the Matter of

SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

and

AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT

EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

 

Case No. 01 FSIP 103

 

ARBITRATOR’S OPINION AND DECISION

   The American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO (Union or AFGE) 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 (FSLMRS), 5 U.S.C. § 7119, between it and the Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland (Employer or SSA). After the investigation of the request for assistance, which concerns a dispute over the planning of Employer-sponsored conferences,(1) the Panel directed the parties to mediation-arbitration via teleconference with the undersigned. The Panel further determined that if any issues remain unresolved following the procedure, the interest arbitrator would resolve them by selecting either of the parties’ final offers on a package basis. Accordingly, on July 17, 2001, a mediation-arbitration proceeding by telephone was conducted with representatives of the parties. During the mediation phase, the parties voluntarily resolved all but one of several issues in dispute.(2) When the parties were unable to reach a complete settlement, they identified for arbitration their final offers on the remaining issue and presented oral argument on their positions. Post-hearing briefs were not submitted.(3) I have now considered the entire record in this matter, including the parties’ final offers, statements of position and documentary evidence.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer is responsible for administering retirement, Medicare, disability, survivor, and Supplemental Security Income entitlement programs. The Union represents approximately 53,000 employees in a nationwide consolidated bargaining unit, the majority of whom work in District and Branch Offices, primarily as claims and service representatives. The parties’ most recent master collective-bargaining agreement is in effect until April 2004.

    The dispute herein arose during bargaining over changes in the Government-wide Federal Travel Regulations (FTR), administered by the General Services Administration (GSA), which went into effect in January 2000. In this regard, the Union sought negotiations over certain aspects of the revised travel regulations which agencies were permitted to implement at their discretion. In essence, the parties’ dispute centers around the Employer’s claim that it needs maximum flexibility concerning conference planning, while the Union seeks to have the Employer exercise its discretion in a consistent manner.

ISSUE AT IMPASSE

    The sole issue at impasse concerns whether the Union should receive notice each time the Employer decides not to serve light refreshments(4) at an Employer-sponsored conference.

POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES

1. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes the following:

For conferences within a single component, where it is determined not to provide light refreshments, SSA will notify the appropriate AFGE component council pursuant to Article 4 of the National Agreement. The Union does not waive any rights to bargain that it may have under the FSLMRS, 5 U.S.C. Chapter 71, or the National Agreement.

For multi-component conferences where it is determined not provide light refreshments, SSA will notify the Spokesperson, AFGE General Committee, pursuant to Article 4 of the National Agreement. The Union does not waive any rights to bargain that it may have under the FSLMRS, 5 U.S.C. Chapter 71, or the National Agreement.

The Union contends that the Employer does not have a consistent practice of providing light refreshments at conferences; rather, whether light refreshments are provided varies from region to region within the components, and employee morale is affected by the disparate treatment. The Union has an interest in ensuring that all employees receive equal treatment on this matter. While the Union does not contend that the Employer must provide light refreshments at all conferences, the Union should be given notice and an opportunity to bargain consistent with Article 4 of the National Agreement, "Negotiations During the Term of the Agreement on Management Initiated Changes." The Union may want to use the information to bargain a consistent policy in the future.

2. The Employer’s Position

    With respect to light refreshments, the Employer proposes the following:

The FTRs, effective January 14, 2000, authorize travelers to be reimbursed for any registration/conference fee charged for the purpose of providing light refreshments. Therefore, SSA will reimburse travelers in accordance with the amended regulations.

In addition, when management determines that providing light refreshments is a necessary element of the conference/meeting, all attendees will be reimbursed if charged a registration/conference fee for the purpose of providing light refreshments. Where no fee is charged, and a determination is made that light refreshments are necessary, all attendees will be entitled to refreshments as provided. Treating all participants equally may be conducive to morale and be administratively more convenient and efficient.

With respect to training conferences, when the determination is made that light refreshments are considered necessary, SSA will provide them at no charge to the attendee.

The Employer maintains that its proposal is consistent with the FTRs and would allow management to retain the discretion it needs to determine whether providing light refreshments is a necessary aspect of a conference. A determination to provide light refreshments at a conference often is dictated by the budget set aside for the event and whether light refreshments would add any value to the conference. Should the Employer decide to provide light refreshments, all conference participants would be served regardless of whether they are in a travel status or non-travel status which demonstrates the Employer’s intent to treat all attendees fairly.

    With respect to the Union’s proposal, it should not be adopted because it would impose an administratively burdensome obligation on the Employer to notify the Union every time a decision is made not to serve light refreshments at a conference. The notice obligations would arise no matter how many or few attendees there may be at a conference. Despite the Union’s claim that the Employer has discretion to determine whether light refreshments are to be provided, its proposal appears to create a bargaining obligation on the Employer where there otherwise may not be one. In this regard, a decision not to serve light refreshments at a conference arguably does not have any impact on employee working conditions; at best, such a decision may have only a de minimis effect, which still would not give rise to a bargaining obligation. The Union’s proposal is likely to lead to endless bargaining, including the possibility of invoking the services of third parties should the Union and Employer reach an impasse in negotiations. Clearly, this is not the most effective use of the parties’ resources or those of a third party such as the Panel.

CONCLUSION

    Having carefully considered the parties’ final offers, arguments and evidence in this case, I shall order the adoption of the Employer’s final offer to resolve the dispute. I am not persuaded that the Union has demonstrated a need to be appraised each and every time the Employer decides not to serve light refreshments at a conference. Under the Union’s proposal, it is immaterial whether the Employer’s decision not to serve light refreshments concerns a conference of 300 employees or a meeting of 3 employees; notice of the decision would have to be provided to the Union regardless of the number of employees anticipated at the conference. In my view, the proposal would create an administratively burdensome requirement for the Employer which the Union has failed to justify. Moreover, the Union did not offer any evidence in support of its contention that there has been an adverse effect on the morale of employees who attend conferences where refreshments are not served. In view of the parties’ agreement that the Union is to receive notice and opportunity to comment when the Employer plans on serving meals at conferences involving 30 or more bargaining-unit employees, the Union would have an opportunity, in those circumstances, to inquire about the Employer’s intent to serve light refreshments at larger conferences. With respect to the Employer’s proposal, it appears to be consistent with the amended FTRs and, furthermore, the proposal indicates the Employer’s intent to treat employees equitably when it comes to making decisions on serving light refreshments at conferences, an interest which the Union shares.

DECISION

    The parties shall adopt the Employer’s final offer.

 

Donna M. DiTullio

Arbitrator

August 6, 2001

Washington, D.C.

 

1.The parties define a “conference” as:

A meeting, retreat, seminar, symposium or event that involves attendee travel. The term ‘conference’ also applies to training activities that are considered to be conferences under 5 C.F.R. § 410.404.

2.Among the provisions agreed upon by the parties is the following:

 

For conferences involving 30 or more bargaining-unit employees, SSA will provide the Union with notice and an opportunity to comment with respect to any meals planned for the conference or the location of the conference. For conferences involving a single component, SSA will notify the appropriate AFGE component council; for multi-component conferences, SSA will notify the Spokesperson, AFGE General Committee.

3.The record was held open until July 19, 2001, to provide the Union with an opportunity to reduce its final offer to writing.

4.The parties have agreed on the following definition:

Light refreshments - Light refreshments for morning, afternoon and/or evening breaks are defined to include, but not to be limited to coffee, tea, milk, juice, soft drinks, donuts, bagels, fruit, pretzels, c