DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION ANNAPOLIS BRANCH OFFICE ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND and LOCAL 3302, 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

ANNAPOLIS BRANCH OFFICE

ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND

and

LOCAL 3302, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF

GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

 

Case No. 95 FSIP 14

DECISION AND ORDER

     Local 3302, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), 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), Annapolis Branch Office, Annapolis, Maryland (Employer).

   After investigation of the request for assistance concerning a dispute over the relocation of the Annapolis Branch Office (BO), the Panel directed the parties to participate in an informal conference with Panel Representative (Staff Attorney) Gladys M. Hernandez for the purpose of resolving the outstanding issues in dispute. 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 issues. Following consideration of this information, the Panel would take whatever action it deemed appropriate to resolve the impasse, including the issuance of a binding decision.

    Accordingly, Ms. Hernandez met with the parties on February 21, 1995, in Annapolis, Maryland, but no settlement was reached. She has reported to the Panel on the remaining issues based on the record developed by the parties. The Panel has now considered the entire record.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer is one of two branch offices in SSA's Glen Burnie District, which also includes a district office. It administers retirement, disability, Medicare, and Supplemental Security Income entitlement programs. The Union represents approximately 50 General Schedule (GS) employees within the district who are part of a nationwide bargaining unit of 48,200. The dispute, however, concerns only the 10 claims representatives and service representatives (SR), in pay grades GS-8 through -11, stationed at the Annapolis BO. They are covered by a nationwide master collective-bargaining agreement between SSA and AFGE which is due to expire in November 1996.

    The two issues which remain in dispute concern (1) the reception counter workstations, where service representatives assist walk-in customers, and (2) the barrier wall that separates the reception area from the general work or interviewing area. The modular reception counter workstations currently in use were moved from the old location. They were purchased 3 years ago; Ms. Hernandez reports that they appear to be in good condition.(1) The Employer acknowledged, however, that some retrofitting would be necessary to make them ergonomic. No employees, however, are suffering from repetitive-stress injuries. It should be noted that in Jaffe II, the parties at the national level agreed that negotiations over the design and installation of reception counters are to take place at the local level so that "the unique characteristics of each location may be given appropriate consideration." They also agreed to come up with a number of design prototypes for pilot testing, and ultimately to provide local parties a "menu" of acceptable ergonomic reception counters to "expedite local bargaining," among other things. Local parties would not be limited to the "menu" selections, however. The "K-1" model proposed by the Employer is being piloted at a field office in Superior, Wisconsin; the Union's proposed "cockpit" model is being piloted in field offices in Medford, Oregon; Southeast Bakersfield, California; and Biddeford, Maine. The Employer contends that both models meet the standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

ISSUES AT IMPASSE

The parties disagree over (1) the design for new reception counter workstations and (2) whether the existing barrier wall should be modified to provide for two interview windows with sliding pocket doors for closure.

POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES

1. Reception Counter Workstations

    a. The Employer's Position

    The Employer proposes to: (1) "install the adjustable prototype workstation commonly identified as K-1 in conjunction with a 4-foot-wide panel-hung work surface with a keyboard cutout," which is conceptually set forth in its Attachment 1; (2) "provide the Union with the opportunity to revisit bargaining associated with the reception counter at the time of modular furniture modification;" (3) install the reception counter workstation "in approximately 120 days" from the date of the Panel's order; and (4) "continue to provide ergonomic adaptive devices as described in existing agreements." The "K-1" model is in essence the same model the Union has already approved as "an interviewing worksurface,"(2) and will be used by "over 90 percent of bargaining-unit employees." It would be "immediately available through noncompetitive procurement procedures" from Federal Prison Industries (FPI).(3) A second "K-1" model workstation is not necessary because the second workstation now in place is "seldom" used.(4) That workstation provides wheelchair access. Also, it would be retrofitted to make it ergonomic; in this regard, it would have an "adjustable keyboard cutout, rounded edges, . . . an ergonomic chair and footstool." The Employer has the money available to purchase a reception counter workstation from FPI through an interagency agreement, but not from a private contractor.(5)

    With regard to the Union's proposed "cockpit" design model, it has not been tested in a "SSA reception environment." Its installation would require changes to "equipment related workflows and practices." Also, it would have an "impact" on access to the interviewing and work area and the employees' ladies room. Moreover, this model is sold only by one vendor. Its installation at this time would create "procurement difficulties" because the Employer would be unable to justify purchasing from a "sole source," i.e., to show that the "cockpit" model is the only one that would meet the Employer's needs. This would delay installation of the new reception counter workstation "a minimum of 18 months." Finally, the installation of a second "fully equipped workstation" is unnecessary given that "historically," only one has "routinely" been used.

    b. The Union's Position

    The Union proposes the following:

    1. The General Layout of the SR work area.

a. The layout for the SR work area shall conform to the layout described in Attachment 1. . . .

    2. Employee's side of the counter.

a. At each workstation, the Employer will install the "cockpit" design that has features that meet the standards and dimensions described in Attachment 2.

b. When facing the barrier wall from the employee's side, the left module will have the "cockpit" shape that situates the VDT on the left side of the work surface. The right module will have the "cockpit" shape that situates the VDT on the right side.

c. The printer will be located in the "L" area in the left module.

    3. Claimant's side of the counter.

a. The claimant's side of the counter will be 40 inches high.

b. The depth of the claimant's side will be 18 inches. This dimension includes the 5-inch barrier wall.

4. Upon request, the Employer will provide a VDT monitor lift.

This is the employees' stated preference for the new reception counter workstations which they arrived at after viewing a Union-produced video showing how it operates. This model is "ergonomically sound" and has no "leg obstruction." It would easily fit in the area where the existing reception counter workstations are located; the Union's Attachment 1 shows that the Employer's access concerns have been addressed. Each workstation can be purchased and installed for "less than $1,000 for the work surface and the motor;"(6) this is a "small investment" to make to maintain the health of employees. The Employer did not provide evidence in support of its position that adoption of this proposal would create "procurement problems." In fact, in the past, the parties have negotiated the purchase of systems furniture from private companies without giving rise to such problems.

    The Employer's proposal, on the other hand, is not responsive to the employees' preference for the "cockpit" design; this is "inconsistent with the National Performance Review and the employee empowerment concept." The "K-1" model is manufactured by FPI; it is the Union's experience that prison-made furniture is "of poor design and inferior quality." Also, this model has legs for support which "would create leg obstruction for the employees." As for the second workstation on the right, it is poorly designed and employees have complained of this.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having evaluated the positions of the parties on this issue, we are persuaded that the matter should be resolved on the basis of a modified version of the Union's final offer. We will add wording that provides for the purchase and installation of each reception counter workstation not to exceed $1,000 based on the cost estimate submitted by the Union. In our view, on balance, the "cockpit" model is the better of the two proposed models. In this regard, while there is no dispute that both are ergonomic, the "cockpit" model has the added benefit that it does not have supporting legs that could obstruct employees' movement. Also, there is no dispute that the "K-1" model was not designed as a reception counter workstation and, to date, has not been proven to work or function well as such. Moreover, we believe that employees' morale and efficiency should improve with the installation of their preferred workstation. Finally, the Employer does not dispute having to provide each workstation with a monitor lift upon request from employees.

2. Barrier Wall

    a. The Employer's Position

    The Employer proposes to retain the existing barrier wall.(7) It is constructed like all other interior walls and provides "physical security." In this regard, employee and customer access to the interviewing or work area is through a "lockable door." To otherwise gain access to that area, an individual would have to vault the reception counter, "a span 33 inches high and 36 inches deep and rise to a height no higher than 7 feet." The customers serviced by this office are mostly Federal Government and military retirees who have never created "security problems." The existing "security arrangements" could be "reassessed" during reopener negotiations if problems arise.

    The modification proposed by the Union, would make it difficult for management to observe what is going on in the reception area, which would interfere with its ability to protect customers and Government property. It would have a cost impact without a benefit. Finally, the "image" it would present would not be "consistent with the nature and type of business conducted" by the office.

    b. The Union's Position

    The Union proposes that the Employer "construct a permanent barrier wall with two windows." Each window would: (1) "be 24 inches wide and 36 inches tall" and (2) "have a lockable pocket door that opens and closes easily and is recessed back into the wall." Such a barrier wall already has been constructed at four field offices of varying size and customer base in Hawaii, Arizona, and Texas. The wall would provide employees with the "more secure work area" they want. It is intended to "deter any potential disruption." In this regard, already there have been two incidents in field offices in California where disgruntled customers have taken employees hostage at gunpoint. "Tighter security" will be even more important in the near future with the implementation of the new Drug Addiction and Alcoholism Program, providing for the suspension of benefits to alcoholics and drug addicts who refuse to enter a treatment program and termination of benefits after 36 months.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having carefully examined the evidence and arguments presented by the parties, we conclude that, under the circumstances of this case, the parties should adopt the Employer's proposal. In our view, the existing barrier wall provides sufficient protection to employees from disruptive or violent customers because it keeps them outside the work area while waiting to be interviewed. We are not persuaded that the modification sought by the Union would provide employees greater protection from potential customer disruption because they will continue to be brought into the work area to be interviewed; it may in fact give employees a false sense of security. Finally, we note that there is no history of violent or disruptive behavior on the part of customers served by this office, although this fact was not pivotal in our decision.

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:

1. Reception Counter Workstations

   The parties shall adopt the Union's proposal modified to cap expenditure for the purchase and installation of each reception counter workstation at $1,000.

2. Barrier Wall

    The parties shall adopt the Employer's proposal.

 

By direction of the Panel.

 

 

 

 

Linda A. Lafferty

Executive Director

March 15, 1995

Washington, D.C.

 

1.The Annapolis BO was 1 of 300 to 400 field offices that received modular furniture a few years ago. The parties indicate that these offices are not ones in which new ergonomic systems furniture will be installed by the September 1997 deadline set forth in 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 4,1993)(Arbitrator Ira F. Jaffe)(Jaffe I). Rather, under the second 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), the Joint Committee on Implementation and Design (JCID) will begin discussions on "design modifications required to make existing modular furniture safer (from an ergonomic perspective) ... after the date on which 75 percent of field office sites at which ergonomic furniture is to be installed have, in fact, received, the furniture."

2.In Jaffe II the national parties agreed that the "K-1" model would be used for the "combined interviewing and adjudicative workstation for non-FEI offices."

3.Under 18 U.S.C. § 4124, as amended (1990), Federal agencies are required to purchase at current market prices products from FPI that "meet their requirements and may be available." Established procurement requirements are not applicable to the purchase of prison-mad