DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION SYRACUSE DISTRICT OFFICE SYRACUSE, NEW YORK and LOCAL 3342, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

 

United States of America

BEFORE THE FEDERAL SERVICE IMPASSES PANEL

 

In the Matter of

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

AND HUMAN SERVICES

SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

SYRACUSE DISTRICT OFFICE

SYRACUSE, NEW YORK

and

LOCAL 3342, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF

GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

Case No. 95 FSIP 8

 

DECISION AND ORDER

    Local 3342, 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, 5 U.S.C. § 7119, between it and the Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration (SSA), Syracuse District Office, Syracuse, New York (Employer).

    After investigation of the request for assistance, the Panel directed the parties to participate in a telephone conference with Staff Associate Gladys M. Hernandez for the purpose of resolving their dispute concerning the availability of computer terminals at the Syracuse District Office (DO). The parties were advised that if no settlement were reached, Ms. Hernandez would report to the Panel on the status of the dispute, including the parties' final offers, and her recommendations for resolving the impasse. After considering this information, the Panel would take whatever action it deemed appropriate to resolve the impasse, including the issuance of a binding decision.

    Ms. Hernandez held telephone conferences with the parties on December 13 and 16, 1995, but the issue remained unresolved. She has reported to the Panel on the matter based on the record developed by the parties.(1) The Panel has now considered the entire record.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer administers retirement, disability, Medicare, and Supplemental Security Income entitlement programs. The Union represents approximately 325 General Schedule employees in 21 field offices. Fifty-six of these employees are stationed at the DO, and work as claims representatives, service representatives/data review technicians, field representatives, technical assistants, secretaries, and clerks. They are part of a nationwide consolidated bargaining unit of approximately 48,200 who are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement due to expire in November 1996.

    The dispute arose during negotiations over the remodelling of the DO to accommodate the front-end interviewing (FEI) system,(2) the wiring for IWS-LAN (a new computer system), and the installation of ergonomic furniture. The parties are at impasse only over Article II, section 1(G), of their MOU on these matters, which concerns the acquisition of additional "TAP" (existing computer system) terminals pending installation of IWS-LAN. In implementing the FEI system, the Employer will move approximately 13 "TAP" terminals from employees' permanent workstations to the FEI area. If the Employer does not acquire approximately 10 additional "TAP" terminals, employees will be required to share those available until the installation of IWS-LAN, originally scheduled to begin nationwide in September 1995, now delayed 1 month.(3) It is undisputed that there is no national priority list or schedule for distributing the discarded "TAP" terminals of field offices that have switched to IWS-LAN. Most likely, one will not be established until it gets closer to the date when the first field offices are to switch to IWS-LAN. It is also undisputed that all Social Security (Title II) and Supplemental Security Income (Title XVI) claims must be processed by computer.

ISSUE AT IMPASSE

    The parties essentially disagree over the extent of the Employer's responsibility to obtain additional "TAP" terminals so that all employees will continue to have one at their permanent workstations following implementation of the FEI system.

POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES

    1. The Employer's Position

    The Employer proposes the following:

Article II, Section 1(G). The parties recognize that the current floor plan design does not account for a sufficient number of monitors and keyboards to assure that there will be one terminal per workstation. Consequently, the Employer, in accordance with Article II, section 1(F)(1),(4) will request additional terminals from locations where the IWS-LAN will be installed before this office. A copy of any request for terminals, and the response, will be provided to the Union when received.

Under its proposal, employees may have to share terminals. In this regard, "each employee who needs one will have access to a terminal, although some may have to move from their workstations to another location." The "shared terminal concept" was agreed to by higher level representatives of the parties in Jaffe II. They recognized that while the sharing of terminals may not be the "optimal solution," at times it may be necessary. DO employees, as employees in most SSA offices where IWS-LAN has not been installed, "need to share" terminals because: (1) pursuant to Jaffe I, the installation of ergonomic furniture is ongoing; (2) the computerization of the claims process, which "began in 1987 and is in its final stages . . . has resulted in a nationwide shortage of computers;" and (3) with the installation of IWS-LAN currently under way, it would be impractical to purchase additional "TAP" terminals which will quickly become "obsolete." Nevertheless, it will make "reasonable attempts to obtain [additional 'TAP' terminals] within the confines of the Agency, or outside if necessary."(5) In this regard, it is committed to acquiring some of the "TAP" terminals discarded by other SSA field offices when they switch to IWS-LAN. It cannot guarantee that it will be able to do so, however, because only SSA's Central Office, as the owner of the terminals, has the authority to determine the offices to which they will be distributed. Moreover, the Central Office, and not the parties, is in a better position to assess the computer needs of all SSA field offices. With 238 other field offices scheduled for installation of IWS-LAN ahead of the DO, however, the "likelihood" is that it will be able to acquire additional ones.

    Contrary to the Union's view, the sharing of workstations need not increase employees' health problems. Such problems could be avoided by reminding employees that when using the ergonomic workstations of others, they should adjust the furniture to accommodate their own physical requirements. Turning to the Union's proposal, the second sentence "violates management's right to assign work and to direct the workforce under 5 USC 7106(a)(2)" because it prohibits SSA from placing computer terminals in offices where there may be a greater need. Also, the Union's proposal "attempts to circumvent locally" Jaffe II.

    2. The Union's Position

    The Union's proposal is as follows:

Article II, Section 1(G). The parties recognize that the current floor plan design does not account for a sufficient number of monitors and keyboards to assure that there will be one terminal per work station. Consequently, the Employer, in accordance with Article II, section 1(F)(1), will request additional terminals from the next scheduled SSA office(s) to receive IWS-LAN equipment or use other resources to conform with the provisions of section 1(F)(1). This request will be made as soon as possible to ensure delivery of available terminals prior to the installation of ergonomic furniture in the Syracuse New York SSA District Office. A copy of each request and response will be provided to the Union when received. Absent a bona fide reason, which will be reduced to writing and shared with the Union, this request will be honored. Denials based upon "appropriate level of authority" rationale will not be considered bona fide. Once approval for the additional terminals is granted, the Employer will take all necessary actions to ensure delivery to the Syracuse District Office at the earliest possible date. Should delays or other events necessitate that shared terminals be used in the Syracuse District Office, the Employer will give advance notice to the Union and fulfill any remaining obligations pursuant to 5 USC 71.

This proposal concerns a 5 U.S.C. § 7106(b)(1) matter and, therefore, is negotiable under Executive Order 12871. It establishes a "mechanism" that ensures the Employer will abide by Jaffe II, and obtain additional terminals "whenever available;" for example, when SSA offices that have converted to IWS-LAN discard their "TAP" terminals. With approximately 238 field offices scheduled for installation of IWS-LAN before the Syracuse DO, the Employer should have no problem acquiring 10 out of the hundreds of discarded "TAP" terminals.

    Under this proposal, the Employer has "considerable flexibility in obtaining additional computer terminals." It would not be required, for example, to acquire all 10 terminals from the first field office scheduled to switch to IWS-LAN. While it may rely on any "legitimate" reasons for not being able to provide the additional terminals, it may not "hide behind the lack-of-authority facade." To allow the Employer to "pass the buck to another level of its bureaucracy" would "make a mockery" of Jaffe II. This proposal also gives the Union (1) an "avenue to appeal" should the Employer not be able to secure additional terminals, and (2) an opportunity to reopen negotiations should it become "inevitable" that employees will have to share workstations.

    The Employer's proposal does not firmly commit it to acquire additional terminals "whenever available" as required under Jaffe II. The Employer's argument that it lacks the authority to make such commitment raises the question of whether it has bargained in good faith. A firm commitment from the Employer is necessary because it has "a history of delays." For example, office furniture which the Employer determined was in "poor" or "fair" condition in 1978 has still not been replaced. The sharing of workstations by DO employees would be "impractical" and "not cost efficient." Service to the public will be adversely impacted because there is no guarantee that all employees will have access to a terminal when needed; also, delayed access will likely reduce employees' productivity and efficiency which may be reflected in their performance appraisals. Moreover, the sharing of terminals may increase the number of employees with health problems such as "musculo-skeletal anomalies," even with the new ergonomic furniture.(6) In this regard, "research" shows that when employees use the ergonomic workstations of others, necessary furniture adjustments are not made because time would be lost for working on assignments. If the number of employees suffering from such health problems rises, so also will their use of sick leave and Workers Compensation costs.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having evaluated the arguments and evidence presented, we conclude that the parties should adopt the Employer's proposal modified to require the Employer to make "a good faith effort" to request additional terminals from other SSA field offices. We will also modify the proposal to include the Union's wording requiring (1) the Employer to make such requests "as soon as possible," and (2) that, if a request is granted, "all necessary actions" be taken to secure delivery of the terminals "at the earliest possible date." While this solution does not guarantee that the DO will get additional terminals, as sought by the Union, such guarantee appears to be unnecessary. In this regard, we note that both parties believe that because of the great number of field offices scheduled for IWS-LAN installation ahead of the DO, it is very likely that the Employer will be able to acquire them. With regard to the Union's proposal, we are concerned that it would require that terminals be provided to the DO even where the public would be better served by placing them in other field offices. In our view, higher level representatives of the parties are in an optimal position to (1) assess the computer needs of all field offices and (2) determine the best allocation of available terminals.(7) Finally, we commend the Employer for the actions it has already taken to obtain additional terminals. Its actions are consistent with the bargaining history in this case, which shows that the parties were able to voluntarily agree to a remarkable number of issues, and were close to agreement on the one before us. Because the parties have a shared interest in acquiring additional terminals, we strongly encourage them to continue their cooperative efforts.

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 proceedings instituted pursuant to the Panel's regulations, 5 C.F.R. § 2471.6 (a)(2), the Federal Service Impasses Panel under § 2471.11(a) of its regulations hereby orders the following:

    The parties shall adopt the Employer's proposal modified as follows:

Article II, Section 1(G). The parties recognize that the current floor plan design does not account for a sufficient number of monitors and keyboards to assure that there will be one terminal per work station. Consequently, the Employer, in accordance with Article II, section 1(F)(1), will make a good faith effort to request additional terminals from locations where the IWS-LAN will be installed before this office. This request will be made as soon as possible to ensure delivery of available terminals prior to the installation of ergonomic furniture in the Syracuse New York SSA District Office. If approval for the additional terminals is granted, the Employer will take all necessary actions to ensure delivery to the Syracuse District Office at the earliest possible date. A copy of any request for terminals, and the response, will be provided to the Union when received.

 

By direction of the Panel.

Linda A. Lafferty

Executive Director

February 13, 1995

Washington, D.C.

1.Following the telephone conferences, pursuant to Ms. Hernandez' request, the parties submitted their final offers and summary position statements.

2.Under this new system for workflow control, employees will be assigned to the FEI area on a rotating basis to conduct in-person interviews. They will process or adjudicate those claims at their permanent workstations.

3.According to the Employer, IWS-LAN eventually will allow each employee to have his or her own terminal. A number of offices have already switched over to IWS-LAN as part of a pilot project.

4.Article II, section 1(F), of the MOU incorporates paragraph (4) of the Stipulated Award in Social Security Administration and American Federation of Government Employees, National Council (220) of SSA Field Operations Locals, FMCS Case No. 89-10722 (August 25, 1994)(Arbitrator Ira F. Jaffe)(Jaffe II), which relates to a national dispute over the installation and design of ergonomic furniture. It reads as follows: 

(F) Per Jaffe II (FMCS Case No. 89-10722), the parties recognize that shared workstations represent a less than optimal situation. Nevertheless, in a number of situations, the sharing of a single terminal by two adjacent workstations will be required. The parties recognize that: 

(1) use of shared workstations should be minimized and whenever available, additional terminals should be obtained to provide one terminal per workstation; 

(2) where local conditions allow, consideration should be given to using unassigned workstations for use by employees who lack access to a terminal at their workstation and who must utilize a terminal to perform their assigned duties; and 

(3) if shared terminals are necessary, the parties (national) will attempt in the JCID process to identify appropriate equipment that will allow the terminal and keyboard to be used in a shared mode in an appropriate fashion from an ergonomic perspective. 

It should be noted that in August 1993 Arbitrator Jaffe issued the first stipulated award in the case (Jaffe I) which arose out of a dispute over the Supplemental Award of Arbitrator Herbert N. Bernhardt issued in September 1991. The ergonomic furniture issue was also the subject of an interest arbitration award issued by former Panel Chairman Robert G. Howlett. Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, Baltimore, Maryland and National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, Case No. 87 FSIP 46 (July 6, 1987), Panel Release No. 259. Under Jaffe I, the installation of ergonomic furniture is scheduled to begin on September 30, 1995. The Union reports that it has been delayed until January 1996.

5.During the informal conference, the Employer indicated that, for example, it intends to send a letter and place telephone calls to appropriate personnel in SSA's Central Office in Baltimore asking for additional terminals. It would solicit the Union's input prior to doing so. It already has (1) issued a request for funds to its Regional Office for the purchase or lease of additional terminals which was denied for lack of funds, and (2) attempted to acquire them from other local Federal agencies (e.g., Department of Veterans Affairs) without success because of unavailability or system incompatibility.

6.The Union reports that the DO already has a great number of employees (17 out of 56) suffering from health problems related to "unhealthy" and "non-ergonomic" working conditions, which has resulted in (1) increased use of sick leave and payout of Workers Compensation benefits, and (2) "instal