DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE and CHAPTER 270, NATIONAL TREASURY EMPLOYEES UNION

In the Matter of

DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY
INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE

and

CHAPTER 270, NATIONAL TREASURY
EMPLOYEES UNION

Case No. 01 FSIP 156

ARBITRATOR'S OPINION AND DECISION

   The National Treasury Employees Union (Union or NTEU) 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, 5 U.S.C. § 7119, between it and the Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Nashville, Tennessee (Employer). After the investigation of the request for assistance, which concerns a dispute over temporary seating assignments for employees who do not have permanent workstations,(1) the Panel directed the parties to mediation-arbitration via teleconference with the undersigned.(2) Accordingly, on September 18, 2001, a mediation-arbitration proceeding by telephone was conducted with representatives of the parties. During the mediation phase, the parties voluntarily resolved one of the three outstanding issues which concerned storage facilities for employees who do not have permanent workstations.(3) When the parties were unable to reach a complete settlement, they identified for arbitration their final offers on the remaining issues and presented oral argument on their positions. Post-hearing briefs were submitted by the parties on September 26, 2001. On October 2, 2001, the Employer submitted sua sponte a rebuttal statement of position, to which the Union replied on October 9, 2001. I have now considered the entire record in this matter, including the parties' final offers, arguments, documentary evidence and post-hearing submissions.

BACKGROUND

   The Employer's mission is to serve taxpayers and help them "understand and meet their tax responsibilities by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness." The Union represents approximately 400 bargaining-unit employees; those affected by this dispute work in the Employer's Southplace facility in Accounts Management and Compliance Services.(4) These bargaining-unit employees hold positions as Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) at the GS-5 through GS-8 levels. The parties are covered by a master collective-bargaining agreement, known as NORD V, which is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2002.

ISSUES AT IMPASSE

   The parties disagree over: (1) which employees should be hoteled or hot-seated when there are insufficient permanent workstations to accommodate employees; and (2) how the parties are to communicate with employees about their agreement on seating arrangements.  

1. Hoteling/Hot-Seating          

a. The Employer's Position

    The Employer proposes the following:

1. The parties agree that the hoteling of employees is undesirable but may be necessary. Compliance Services and Accounts Management at Southplace commit to avoiding the hoteling of employees and will make every effort to assign newly-hired employees (hereinafter "employees") to their own workstation.

2. On the first of the month, Compliance Services at Southplace will survey the other divisions at Southplace to determine the number and type of workstations unassigned/vacant at Southplace and report that information to NTEU.

3. Before hoteling, employees will be assigned to workstations in the following priority order: 

    (a) Employees will be permanently assigned to position description workstations in their division at Southplace, if available.

  (b) If not available, employees will be temporarily assigned to non-secretarial workstations in their division at Southplace, if available.

  (c) If not available, employees will be temporarily assigned to position description workstations in any other division at Southplace, if available.

  (d) If not available, employees will be temporarily assigned to non-secretarial workstations that can accommodate the employees assigned work in any other division at Southplace, if available.

  (e) If not available, then the employee will be hoteled into available workstations that can accommodate the employee's assigned work. 

4. This agreement remains in effect through December 31, 2002.

In essence, the Employer asserts that its proposal provides a less disruptive approach for assigning workstations to employees in the unlikely situation where there are more employees in the Compliance Services division than there are permanent or even temporary workstations available for them. Under this plan, newly-hired employees in the Compliance Services division would be hoteled only in the event that they cannot be accommodated with workstation assignments as described in sections 3(a) through (d) of the proposal. Although not specifically stated in its proposal, the Employer maintains that the process would "ensure that any hoteled employees are first seated in their own division before assignment in another division." In the event, however, that some Compliance Services employees must be hoteled outside of their division and seated in the Accounts Management division, they would not be the only Compliance Services employees stationed outside of their division; in this regard, currently, there are some Compliance Services employees temporarily assigned to workstations in the Accounts Management division.

    The Employer disagrees with the Union's contention that newly-hired CSRs for the Compliance Services division should be seated in their own division close to their team leaders, upon whom these new employees initially rely heavily for on-the-job training and advice. The Employer, citing its recent experience in temporarily assigning Compliance Services employees to workstations in the Accounts Management division, has found that no problems were reported by those employees in terms of the availability of on-the-job training or accessability to team leaders. Therefore, it does not anticipate that newly-hired CSRs would encounter difficulties because they may be hoteled outside of their division. The Employer finds unfeasible the Union's solution to the seating assignment problem; that is, to reassign Quality Coach employees(5) to other workstations so that newly-hired CSRs could be assigned to the vacated workstations which are close to team leaders. The Employer asserts that the proposal "would undermine the work of the Quality Coach employees because they must remain in a cluster due to a constant sharing of their workloads and it is unlikely that the other work areas would have a cluster of three to four workstations available simultaneously." Furthermore, these employees should be seated in proximity to the first-line manager to facilitate consultation on numerous issues that arise while performing the duties of a Quality Coach. Moreover, "it is not reasonable to relocate the Quality Coach employees out of their divisions when there are workstations permanently assigned to other employees but not in use in Compliance Services and/or Accounts Management divisions."

    With respect to the duration of the parties' agreement on hoteling/hot-seating, the Employer contends that the agreement should remain in effect until December 31, 2002, a reasonable period of time before the parties may have to renegotiate the matter. The Union's proposal, which would allow the agreement to run concurrently with the NORD V contract, which is scheduled to expire on June 30, 2002, would be too short an implementation period. In this regard, the parties could find themselves renegotiating hoteling/hot-seating in as little as 6 months.

    b. The Union's Position

The Union proposes the following:

Management has determined that hot-seating/hoteling of employees is undesirable. All Operating Divisions/Business Units commit to avoiding hot-seating/hoteling of employees.

1. Management will maintain a list, updated monthly, of all unassigned workstations in the Southplace Office Park.

2. This list will be shared with NTEU and each Business Unit present in the facility on a monthly basis.

3. Before hoteling, employees will be assigned to workstations in the following priority order:

(a) Employees will be permanently assigned to vacant (unassigned) workstations in their division if any are available, (e.g. Customer Service Representative to Customer Service Representative; Lead to Lead);

(b) If there are no vacant workstations available in the Division, newly hired Customer Service Representatives will be temporarily assigned to non-secretary (lead, manager, quality coach/analyst) workstations in the other "Call-Site" division where management intends to fill Customer Service Representative positions, prior to hot-seating new employees.

(c) If there are no vacant workstations available in either Call-Site division, management will relocate trained Quality/Support Staff in any other available workstation in Southplace in the following priority order: TAS, DORA, Training, and MITS, including Site Support.

(i) These employees will be given the opportunity to volunteer for these temporary workstations.

(ii) Absent volunteers, employees will be assigned to temporary workstations on a reverse seniority basis.

(iii) Once moved, an employee affected by this provision will be moved to the bottom of the list of employees subject to temporary location.

(iv) Employees will be given 8 hours to pack and unpack their desks.

(d) Workstations vacated by Quality/Support Staff will be filled by newly hired Customer Service Representatives.

4. The workstations to which employees are assigned will be equipped with the equipment (ASPECT phone, computer, etc.) necessary for the employee to be fully successful in his/her assigned position.

5. Once a business division permanently fills a position, it may reclaim a workstation temporarily filled under the terms of this agreement.

6. Business divisions are encouraged to consolidate Call-Site employees assigned to their areas to reduce the impact of noise on the others situated in the work area.

7. This agreement remains in effect for the remainder of NORD V.

The Union contends that instead of hoteling or hot-seating newly-hired CSRs, another group of employees known as the Quality Staff would be better suited to endure hoteling situations. In this regard, at the Southplace facility there are seven technical specialists on the Quality Staff who provide assistance to leads and managers; their duties include responding to written queries for assistance prepared by CSRs and monitoring employee telephone calls with the public for quality assurance purposes. While some members of the Quality Staff currently are seated together, others are dispersed throughout the telephone divisions; there is no evidence that these employees must work in a cluster in order to perform effectively. Employees on the Quality Staff are "independent, higher graded, and tenured" and, therefore, they could adjust more readily to being placed in vacant workstations outside of the telephone units than newly-hired CSRs. Quality Staff personnel utilize the same equipment (computers, ASPECT telephone system) that CSRs use, except that Quality Staff would need two additional software packages loaded onto the computer at the workstation where they would be hoteled; this, the Union asserts, involves only a minor equipment adjustment. Quality Staff employees are more experienced and work more independently; many of them already work outside of their "functioning unit." Thus, the Union maintains the "Quality Staff is better equipped to handle the distance from the telephone operation than newly hired Customer Service Representatives."

    By hoteling Quality Staff before new hires, the Employer would be able to free up space for the new CSRs to be seated in a telephone division. Seating the most junior CSRs in "non-telephone divisions" would create an extreme hardship on them. The non-telephone divisions are on the opposite side of the building from the telephone divisions. Furthermore, if CSRs are hoteled in non-telephone divisions, the noise level that would be created as a result of their constantly talking on the telephone would prove to be a distraction to other employees in those divisions. Quality Staff employees, on the other hand, monitor telephone calls and, therefore, their presence in a non-telephone work area would not create any disturbance for employees seated nearby. If newly-hired CSRs are to successfully complete their probationary period, they should remain close to where their team lead and manager are seated so that they may provide the technical assistance and "extensive personal interaction" which new CSRs require.

    Hoteling CSRs likely would hamper their ability to electronically tab or "bookmark" particular references in the on-line versions of IRS manuals. In this regard, often employees will "tab" a frequently used reference in research materials that are on-line; since tabbing is unique to each computer, a CSR who is moved daily from one workstation to another would not be able to take advantage of the tabbing system since the employee may be moved frequently from one computer workstation to another. For all these reasons, the Quality Staff personnel are better able to shoulder the burden of hoteling than the newly-hired CSRs.

    As to the duration provision, the Union contends that the agreement should "track the life of the NORD" contract because that is the usual practice with respect to local agreements. At the expiration of the NORD V contract, the Employer would have the option of re-opening the local agreement or allowing it to run concurrently with a successor NORD agreement.

CONCLUSION

    Having carefully considered the arguments and evidence presented by the parties, I conclude that their dispute over this issue should be resolved on the basis of the Employer's proposal, modified to allow the agreement to run concurrently with the NORD V contract. Clearly, the hoteling/hot-seating of any employee is an undesirable situation which does nothing to enhance employee working conditions and morale; it is an inconvenience, if not a burden for most employees. I am not persuaded by the Union's argument that Quality Staff employees should be hoteled/hot-seated to permit newly-hired CSRs the opportunity to have workstations near their team leads. The Union asserts, and the Employer does not dispute, that members of the Quality Staff are "highly trained and skilled" and "tenured" bargaining-unit employees. In my view, the work experience and tenure of Quality Staff employees have earned them the privilege of not being displaced from their workstations in order to accommodate junior employees. Frequently, labor-management agreements give deference to seniority status by affording long-term employees various rights and privileges. I am not inclined, therefore, to deny Quality Staff employees the right to have permanent workstations. While it is unfortunate that any employee should become an office itinerant, moving from one workstation to another workstation, potentially on a daily basis, I believe that the newly-hired CSRs should suffer that inconvenience over Quality Staff employees. In my view, that is part of paying one's dues to earn future privileges and benefits. To the extent that newly-hired CSRs may have diminished opportunities for personal interaction with their team leads because they may be hoteled/hot-seated outside of their division, the Employer is encouraged to take steps to ensure that any physical isolation of these junior employees does not adversely affect their access to leads who provide the CSRs with on-the-job training and guidance on work-related matters.

    As to the duration of the parties' agreement on hoteling/hot-seating, I shall order that it run concurrently with the NORD V contract which is to expire on June 30, 2002. A shorter duration than that proposed by the Employer should provide the parties with an opportunity, if need be, to renegotiate the matter in order to address problems which arise during the 7- or 8-month period the agreement is in effect.

2.  Communication With Employees

    a. The Employer's Position

The Employer proposes the following wording:

Management for Compliance Services and Accounts Management together with NTEU will jointly share the provisions of this agreement in team meetings. At the conclusion of each team meeting, NTEU will be given 10 minutes to discuss the agreement with employees outside the presence of management. This 10-minute period is for discussion of the underlying agreement only.

The Employer contends that its proposal would give the parties an opportunity to jointly explain the agreement to employees and answer their questions during team meetings. Furthermore, it provides the Union with a reasonable period of time to meet with bargaining-unit employees outside the presence of management to further address employee concerns relating to hoteling/hot-seating. While there is no entitlement under the parties' NORD V contract for a private meeting on duty time between Union representatives and bargaining-unit employees concerning purely local matters, a 10-minute session would be acceptable to management noting, particularly, that the parties have agreed that the terms of the hoteling/hot-seating agreement do not establish a precedent for future agreements between the parties. The Union's proposal for a 30-minute private meeting with bargaining-unit employees(6) on duty time to discuss the hoteling/hot-seating agreement would be too costly to the Agency in terms of lost production time.(7) Moreover, it is speculative whether any employees would have to be hoteled/hot-seated; therefore, there may not be a need for the Union to have a lengthy discussion with bargaining-unit employees about that subject. Finally, if the Union desires to communicate directly with bargaining-unit employees about hoteling/hot-seating, it should use the Union newsletter to set forth its position on the matter.

    b. The Union's Position

    The Union proposes the following:

Management has determined that immediately following the signing of this agreement NTEU will be given 20 minutes at the conclusion of each team meeting to review the terms and potential impact of this agreement.

The Union contends that it should have an opportunity to discuss hoteling/hot-seating with bargaining-unit employees outside of team meetings which, generally, are reserved for discussions of technical matters. Hoteling/hot-seating is a significant change in working conditions that will affect not only those who are hoteled but, also, employees whose workstations are being utilized in their absences. Privacy, convenience, comfort and displacement are all issues that are likely to be raised by employees. The Union, which is in an awkward political position, should have a reasonable opportunity to address employees on the agreement--one that may not sit well with employees unless it is fully explained during "honest discussion" between the Union and employees.

CONCLUSIONS

Having carefully considered the arguments and evidence presented by the parties on this issue, I conclude that it should be resolved based upon the Employer's proposal. I am persuaded that the agreement should be discussed jointly by the parties with bargaining-unit employees. In this regard, the parties' agreement on hoteling/hot-seating is not one that many employees are likely to embrace enthusiastically and, for that reason, it seems reasonable that both the Employer and representatives of the Union should appear together, at least initially, to address employee concerns. In my view, the Union should be afforded a period of time, as provided by the Employer's proposal, to further address employee concerns outside management's presence on an agreement which, as the Union speculates, is not likely to be popular among employees. A 10-minute meeting between employees and Union representatives may serve to further quell employee concerns, and its brief duration should not have any significant impact on the Employer's accomplishment of its mission.

DECISION

1. Hoteling/Hot-Seating

    The parties shall adopt the Employer's proposal, modified to allow the agreement to run concurrently with the NORD V contract.

2. Communication With Employees

    The parties shall adopt the Employer's proposal.

Donna M. DiTullio

Arbitrator

October 29, 2001

Wa