SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION OFFICE OF HEARINGS AND APPEALS NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA and LOCAL 3506, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

United States of America

BEFORE THE FEDERAL SERVICE IMPASSES PANEL

 

In the Matter of

SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

OFFICE OF HEARINGS AND APPEALS

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

and

LOCAL 3506, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF

GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

Case No. 95 FSIP 28

 

DECISION AND ORDER

    Local 3506, 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 (SSA), Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA), New Orleans, Louisiana (Employer). After investigation of the request for assistance, the Panel determined that the dispute, which concerns an office relocation, should be resolved through an informal conference between a Panel representative and the parties. If no settlement were reached, the representative was to notify the Panel of the status of the dispute, including the final offers of the parties and the representative's recommendations for resolving the matter. Following notification, the Panel would take whatever action it deemed appropriate to resolve the impasse.

    In accordance with this procedural determination, Panel Representative (Staff Attorney) Harry E. Jones met with the parties on April 11, 1995, in New Orleans, Louisiana. During the course of that proceeding, one minor issue was resolved. At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Jones requested that the parties provide written statements setting forth their respective final proposals on the remaining issues. He has reported to the Panel, and it has now considered the entire record.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer adjudicates appeals of retirement, survivor, Medicare, disability, black lung, and supplemental security income claims. Local 3506 represents approximately 390 employees in the OHA Dallas Region, which covers a 5-state area. Thirty-three employees of the New Orleans office are affected by this dispute; they work as hearing assistants, hearing clerks, paralegal specialists, and docket clerks, and are part of a nationwide consolidated bargaining unit of approximately 48,200 employees. The parties are covered by a master agreement between SSA and AFGE which is due to expire in November 1996. The office relocation in the instant case was completed on January 16, 1995, prior to the conclusion of bargaining.

ISSUES AT IMPASSE

    There are six separate issues at impasse: (1) Space Utilization, (2) Seating Plan, (3) Workstations, (4) Paralegal Offices, (5) Union Office Space, and (6) Access to Equipment.

1. Space Utilization

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes the following:

The Employer will pursue the most efficient space utilization possible to ensure a quality workplace environment is provided for all AFGE bargaining-unit employees. The Employer will provide and maintain healthy and safe workstations; in order to accomplish this, the Employer will allow each AFGE bargaining-unit employee the minimum square footage per GSA regulations.

This proposal would require the Employer to reallocate space in accordance with General Services Administration (GSA) standards which establish specific space allowances for various occupations. Under this approach, hearing assistants would be allowed 100 square feet of workspace, while hearing clerks would be entitled to 75 square feet. Requiring the Employer to "provide and maintain healthy and safe workstations" should help ensure that employees are not exposed to health and safety hazards; work areas are currently very congested, which could result in severe work-related injuries. Overall, its proposal is likely to have a positive impact on morale, as unit employees believe that they have been shortchanged on space at the new location.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer proposes:

During the relocation process, it is Management’s intent to pursue the most efficient space utilization possible and, to the maximum extent reasonable, ensure that a quality workplace environment is provided for all bargaining-unit employees. The Employer will provide and maintain healthy and safe workstations.

This proposal is preferable because it is consistent with the parties’ memorandum of agreement regarding modular furniture; under that agreement, most modular workstations will require only 57.2 square feet of space. In addition, the establishment of a "reasonableness" standard is appropriate, because the Employer’s ability to provide a "quality workplace environment" for each employee is limited by the total amount of leased space and other physical surroundings. Moreover, the commitment that the Employer will provide and maintain healthy and safe workstations is a sound management practice that is consistent with existing law.

    With respect to the Union’s proposal, the GSA Space Allocation Standards establish the maximum amount of space allowable for certain occupations; providing each employee with that amount of space is simply not feasible, given the total square footage of the leased space and the amount of space required for other purposes. Moreover, if each employee were to be provided the maximum amount of workspace, installation of all of the modular furniture might not be possible. Finally, adoption of the Union’s proposal would require extensive remodeling, the cost of which cannot be justified in the current economic climate.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having reviewed the record on this issue, we conclude that neither party’s proposal provides a suitable resolution to the dispute. The first sentence of the Employer’s proposal is wordy, and would have no effect, since unilateral implementation has occurred and the "relocation process" is complete. The Union’s proposal, on the other hand, is confusing, as it would require the Employer to provide only a "minimum" amount of workspace to the affected employees. Since both proposals would require the Employer to: (1) pursue the efficient use of space, (2) provide a quality workplace environment, and (3) maintain healthy and safe workstations, we shall order wording which expressly states those principles. Because we agree that a standard of "reasonableness" is appropriate with regard to space utilization, however, we shall also include more succinct wording which allows the Employer some leeway in pursuing efficiencies in this area.

2. Seating Plan

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposal is:

Seating for AFGE employees will be as follows: (1) docket clerks may select workstations in the docket area; (2) hearing clerks will be located in a hearing clerk unit; (3) hearing assistants will be located in a hearing assistant unit. Each AFGE bargaining-unit employee will select his/her desk location by position in the appropriate unit specified above and then by seniority, based on first entry into the New Orleans OHA date, from among those designated unit locations. In the event of a tie, service computation date in the Social Security Administration will be used. The floor plan and a list of names prioritized by OHA first entry date will be posted. In the order stated by the list, each employee will select a workstation, subscribe his or her name on the selected workstation shown on the floor plan, and notify the next individual on the prioritized list. If an employee is on leave and unable to be contacted by telephone, further selection will be held in abeyance until the employee can be contacted.

This proposed seating arrangement is superior because employees have expressed a preference for being seated in a "pooled system" or "reconfigured system" as opposed to the "team system" or "unit system" advocated by the Employer; allowing employees to be grouped in accordance with their preference should have a positive impact on morale. Since employees take their direction and assignments from their immediate supervisors, and not the administrative law judges to whom they are assigned, having employees seated in the same vicinity as their supervisors would promote increased interaction and cooperation. In addition, seating employees in close proximity to their supervisors would allow the accurate assessment of employee performance and ensure consistent treatment for similarly-situated workers. Such an arrangement also would permit the supervisor to assess training needs and be readily available to provide technical assistance. Finally, this proposed method of selecting seating is consistent with the practice which was in place at the prior location and would be fair, because it pays deference to seniority.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer’s proposal is as follows:

Docket clerks may select workstations in the docket area under any criteria proposed by the exclusive representative. Hearing assistants and hearing clerks under the unit system are an integral team. These teams may select workstations in the open areas, excluding supervisory slots, under any criteria proposed by the exclusive representative.

The "unit" or "team" system allows for more efficient case processing, as it reduces the number of employees who handle a particular file. In this regard, it minimizes the opportunity for files to be misplaced and provides team members with the opportunity to become more familiar with the details of a particular case; this, in turn, allows them to be more responsive to claimant inquiries. Productivity, as measured by number of cases closed per month, has increased dramatically since the inception of the unit system. Seating team members in accordance with the unit system makes greater sense, as it allows them to provide backup to one another and to communicate with each other more quickly on individual cases. Under this plan, the Union has the discretion to develop a seating selection method within the unit system, thereby providing maximum flexibility within these boundaries. Finally, this proposal is consistent with the approach adopted by the Panel in a prior case.(1)

CONCLUSIONS

    After carefully considering the evidence and arguments presented on this issue, we conclude that the Employer’s proposal provides the best resolution of the dispute. Given that employees are assigned to work under the team system, it makes sense, in our view, to adopt a seating arrangement which is consistent with that system. Seating team members together should enhance communication between them and promote better customer service. Overall, the Employer’s proposal is likely to have a more positive impact on productivity. For this reason, we shall order its adoption.

3. Workstations

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes:

AFGE bargaining-unit employees will be permitted to relocate and maintain at their new workstations such personal and Government properties as they maintained at their old workstations which do not interfere with safe and secure use of workstations, provided such properties fit within the new workstation boundaries. Based on availability, computers will be placed in a location mutually convenient to hearing assistants in the hearing assistant area and hearing clerks in the hearing clerk area.

The second sentence of the proposal, the only portion in dispute, is consistent with the "reconfigured" seating system which it has proposed in the previous issue. Although the parties do not disagree over the wording of the first sentence, the Union reiterates that employee work areas are inadequate and do not allow sufficient space for personal items.

    b. The Employer’s Proposal

    The Employer’s proposal is as follows:

AFGE bargaining-unit employees will be permitted to relocate and maintain at their new workstations such personal and Government properties as they maintained at their old workstations which do not interfere with safe and secure use of workstations, provided such properties fit within the new workstation boundaries. Based on availability, team computers will be placed in a location mutually convenient to each team member.

This approach is consistent with the "team" seating proposal outlined above. That is, having a computer in the same area where team employees are seated is a sensible approach, as it is likely to enhance workflow and productivity.

CONCLUSIONS

    Based on the record developed by the parties on this issue, we conclude that the Employer’s proposal would provide the better basis for resolving the dispute. Its approach is consistent with the team seating arrangement which we adopted with respect to the previous issue. In our view, having computers arranged in accordance with a reconfigured seating plan would impede employees’ ability to accomplish their work effectively. Accordingly, the Employer’s proposal shall be ordered.

4. Paralegal Offices

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes:

Each AFGE bargaining-unit employee will be provided privacy. 1. Each paralegal specialist will be provided a private office consisting of 120 square feet. 2. The hearing clerks’ workstations and the hearing assistants’ workstations will be separated by divider screens until such time that the modular furniture is utilized.

This proposal would allow an adequate amount of space for paralegals to perform their assigned duties. The amount of square footage proposed is consistent with an agreement between the Employer and another union which addresses the office space issue for attorneys. The proposal is also consistent with a past practice of providing the same amount of space for paralegals as for attorneys. Finally, installing dividers on an interim basis would provide greater privacy for hearing assistants and hearing clerks.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer makes the following proposal:

Each AFGE bargaining-unit employee will be provided privacy. Each paralegal specialist will be provided a private office of a minimum of 100 square feet.

This proposal is consistent with the past practice of maintaining parity between paralegals and attorneys. Since attorneys will be allowed approximately 100 square feet of office space, in accordance with a prior Panel decision,(2) providing paralegals with larger offices would be inconsistent with the prior practice. Moreover, 100 square feet of space for paralegals is the maximum amount allowed under the GSA standards and provides employees with the necessary space to perform their duties.

    The Union’s proposal would result in paralegals’ having greater office space than attorneys, which could lead to conflict within the office. In addition, increasing the size of paralegal offices could necessitate a reduction in the size of common areas, and require expensive remodeling. The cost of new dividers may not be justified, since new modular furniture is due to be installed in the near future, while the use of secondhand dividers could detract from the overall color scheme of the office. Finally, the use of dividers may reduce the amount of natural light in the office, while not ensuring privacy for employees.

CONCLUSIONS

    Upon examination of the record on this issue, we are persuaded that the Employer’s proposal provides a reasonable basis for resolving the impasse. In our opinion, its approach would maintain equity between attorneys and paralegals, which has been an ongoing practice in the office. Moreover, we see no need to require dividers for hearing assistants and hearing clerks at this time, since new modular furniture is due to be installed in the not too distant future. Because the Employer’s proposal provides adequate work space for paralegals, without incurring any additional costs, we shall order its adoption.

5. Union Office Space

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union’s proposal is:

AFGE Local 3506 will be provided a private office. Three potential spaces are available: two 100 sq. ft. offices and the library; the Employer agrees that one of the three will be provided for the use of the AFGE representative. It is understood that this is for the purpose of providing privacy for conducting representational responsibilities in addition to her regularly assigned duties.

This proposal is consistent with the practice at the prior location where the Union representative had a private office in a relatively isolated area of the workspace. The current lack of a Union office is having a chilling effect on employees’ ability to privately raise complaints, since the Union representative is currently seated in an open area, within earshot of her supervisor. Private space also is necessary to secure Union files and records; in this regard, the Union alleges that files have been tampered with in the recent past. The proposal also strikes a balance between the institutional concerns of the Union and the Employer’s need to utilize the leased space effectively; that is, the Union representative would use the office as her regular workspace, but would have some privacy when conducting representational matters. Finally, the Employer is obligated to bargain over this subject and is violating the spirit of Executive Order 12871 by raising a duty-to-bargain question.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer proposes the following:

Management agrees to abide by the provisions of the National Agreement set forth at Article 11, Section 1A.(3)

The subject of office space is covered by the master agreement and, therefore, the Employer has no further obligation to bargain over the issue; moreover, Executive Order 12871 does not require either party to renegotiate matters which are contained in the contract. The proposal preserves the integrity of the master agreement provision and would allow any subsequent dispute over interpretation to be handled through grievance arbitration.

    Adoption of the Union’s proposal would require the relocation of a small library or, in the alternative, would require providing the Union an office which will, in the future, be assigned to an attorney. Since the Union representative spends only 10 percent of her time performing representational duties, a private office is not necessary, especially since it would be at the expense of an employee who requires quiet space on a full-time basis. Having the library in an open area is not feasible, as it is used to conduct meetings when no other space is available. With respect to the practice at the prior location, the Union representative had a private office because of her position as a hearing assistant -- not because of her status as a Union representative. Overall, the existing contract terms are adequate to address this issue and, therefore, should be followed.

CONCLUSIONS

    With respect to the duty-to-bargain question raised by the Employer, we see no need to address the parties’ arguments, as we believe that the Employer’s proposal provides the best resolution to the dispute. In this regard, we agree that the provisions of Article 11, Section 1, of the SSA/AFGE master agreement adequately address the subject of office space and facilities. In reaching this conclusion, we recognize that the meaning of the contract wording is subject to interpretation as it applies to the facts and circumstances of this particular case. Although final resolution could be obtained by the parties through grievance arbitration, we urge them to use an interest-based problem solving approach, rather than continuing in an adversarial mode. In our view, such an approach should help the parties build a more positive relationship, while conserving resources for mission requirements.

6. Access to Equipment

    a. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes:

The Union Steward of AFGE Local 3506 will be provided an electric typewriter which is in good repair. The AFGE Steward will also be provided access to a personal computer as needed to carry out her representational duties.

This proposal would grant the Union representative adequate equipment to perform representational duties. This should allow the representative to maintain privacy in preparing documents, thereby protecting the institutional concerns of the Union and the privacy interests of individual employees.

    b. The Employer’s Position

    The following is the Employer’s proposal:

The Union Steward of AFGE Local 3506 will be provided access to Government equipment pursuant to Article 11 of the National Contract and the pertinent Letter of Understanding.

This proposal preserves the integrity of Article 11, Section 6, of the master agreement, as well as the August 10, 1993, letter of understanding.(4) The Union proposal is unnecessary, as there has been no showing of insufficient access to equipment to perform representational duties.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having carefully reviewed the parties’ positions on this issue, we conclude that the Employer’s proposal should be adopted. In this regard, we agree that the provisions of Article 11, Section 6, of the SSA/AFGE master agreement, as well as the letter of understanding, adequately address the subject of equipment. As noted in our discussion of the previous issue, however, we recognize that the relevant contract provisions are subject to interpretation. Although grievance arbitration is one available forum, we again encourage the parties to use an interest-based problem solving approach to reach closure in the circumstances of this dispute.

ORDER

    Pursuant to the authority vested in it by section 7119 of 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 under 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 parties to adopt the following:

1. Space Utilization

    The parties shall adopt the following wording:

The Employer will pursue the most efficient space utilization reasonable to ensure a quality workplace environment is provided for all AFGE bargaining-unit employees. The Employer will provide and maintain healthy and safe workstations.

2. Seating Plan

The parties shall adopt the Employer's proposal.

3. Workstations

The parties shall adopt the Employer’s proposal.

4. Paralegal Offices

The parties shall adopt the Employer’s proposal.

5. Union Office Space

The parties shall adopt the Employer’s proposal.

6. Access to Equipment

The parties shall adopt the Employer’s proposal.

 

By direction of the Panel.

Linda A. Lafferty

Executive Director

June 26, 1995

Washington, D.C.

 

1.See Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, Office of Hearings and Appeals, Dallas Region, Dallas, Texas and Local 3506, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, Case No. 94 FSIP 73 (August 4, 1994), Panel Release No. 362.

2.See Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, Office of Hearings and Appeals, Falls Church, Virginia and National Treasury Employees Union, Case No. 94 FSIP 47 (August 3, 1994), Panel Release No. 362.

3.Article 11, Section 1A., of the contract provides: 

The Administration will continue to provide the Union such office space and furnishings as were being provided under component-wide agreements or other arrangements on December 1, 1992. The Administration will make reasonable efforts to provide private space, as available, for confidential discussions between a bargaining-unit member and a designated Union representative, when held in accordance with the terms of this agreement.

4.Article 11, Section 6, of the contract provides: