SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION ONTARIO DISTRICT OFFICE ONTARIO, CALIFORNIA and LOCAL 2452, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO
In the Matter of
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
ONTARIO DISTRICT OFFICE
Case No. 95 FSIP 135
LOCAL 2452, AMERICAN FEDERATION
OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO
ARBITRATOR’S OPINION AND DECISION
Local 2452, 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 Social Security Administration (SSA), Ontario District Office, Ontario, California (Employer). After an investigation of the request for assistance concerning the renovation of the Employer’s office, the Panel directed the parties to mediation-arbitration with the undersigned. In depth and exhaustive mediation sessions were held on November 1 and 2, 1995, at the Employer’s office. At the commencement of the mediation, the parties reached agreement on all outstanding issues with the exception of those concerning the design and layout of the reception counter workarea where service representatives (SR) attend to customers. While the parties worked diligently with the mediator creating multiple options, those issues were not resolved. The undersigned then proceeded to arbitrate the dispute; the parties submitted their final proposals and position statements to the arbitrator within the time allowed. I have now considered the entire record.
The Employer’s mission is to administer Federal retirement, disability, Medicare, and Supplemental Security Income entitlement programs. The Union represents anywhere from 95 to 120 General Schedule (GS) employees within the district who are part of a nationwide bargaining unit of 48,200. The dispute, however, concerns only the 35 GS-5 through -11 claims representatives, SRs, field representatives and development clerks who work at the Ontario District Office. They are covered by a national collective-bargaining agreement between AFGE and SSA which is due to expire in November 1996.
The dispute centers on (1) the construction of a 5-inch-high platform and (2) the design of the SR reception counter workstations.
POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES
1. The Employer’s Position
The Employer argues that the Union’s proposal for the construction of a platform with three ramps would create an unsafe workarea, particularly for the two physically-challenged employees in wheelchairs (one conventional and one scooter) who could "wheel off" of the edge of the platform because of the lack of space to move. Also, it is not economically feasible to build a 5-inch-high platform in the workspace available.
Its proposal provides for six adjustable (K-1 design) workstations (three for right-hand and three for left-hand access). These proposed workstations provide more flexibility for employees and have been agreed to by other AFGE locals.
Its proposed configuration for the reception counter workarea leaves the photocopy machine in the mid-area where all the SRs can simply turn around, as they do now, and access it. The Union’s proposal, on the other hand, has a ramp located in the mid-area and the photocopy machine to one side wall.
Ergonomically, it insists that there is no conclusive evidence that the 5-inch-high platform, which would not bring the employees to eyelevel with members of the public, would prevent employees’ suffering neck stress or injuries.
2. The Union’s Position
The Union argues that construction of a 5-inch-high platform would make a difference both physically and mentally for employees, because it would bring them closer to eyelevel with members of the public, thereby reducing the number of incidents of neck and muscle strain and creating a situation where customers are not "towering over" the employees. The other option for having employees at eyelevel with customers is to have customers sit while they are being interviewed by the SRs; the Employer, however, has adamantly rejected this option because it would increase customer service time. Moreover, studies show that employees prefer and recommend platforms because they: (1) decrease likelihood of getting neck and muscle strain; (2) increase their comfort by allowing them to sit rather than stand while working; and (3) make them feel more confident and less intimidated when attending customers who would be at eyelevel rather than looking down at them.
The Union insists that it has attempted to meet all the Employer’s objections to constructing a platform. In this regard, it has added to its design a third ramp access in mid-aisle and moved the photocopy machine to the wall; this provides employees in wheelchairs with more maneuverability room. Moreover, its proposed Herman Miller workstations would fit on the platform whereas the K-1s proposed by the Employer would not fit. Finally, it argues that the increased cost for its proposed workstations (about $1,000 each) and platform is minimal (about $55 per month over the 10 year lease) compared to the amount it would save in preventing repetitive stress injuries.
While the parties are in dispute over how to achieve their various interests, including prevention of work-related injuries and renovation of the workarea so SRs can sit down to work and have forms readily accessible, it is clear to me that they both have studied this area of ergonomics extensively and are continually updating for specific worksites as new innovations become available.
After careful consideration of all the background articles, studies, and argument from the parties, I find that in this workplace, with the limited ability to place a high platform in the workarea, that the adjustable desk proposed by the agency creates the flexibility for employees to sit or stand so they are not intimidated by clients and can relieve stress to their necks and muscles.
The Union gives the example of a person sitting at 4 feet and a person standing at 6 feet potentially creating an intimidating situation and one of neck stress. The problem the arbitrator has is that a 5-inch-high platform would not relieve either of the problems in the example given. In other words, at 4 feet 5 inches, employees could still potentially be intimidated by a 6-foot-tall person looking down on them, and have stress to the neck as they would be tilting their necks to an angle to see up 1 foot 7 inches rather than 2 feet. Unfortunately, the narrowness of the workarea simply does not allow for the construction of an adequate platform to provide for eyelevel contact or, at least, a reasonable proximity.
Additionally, the adjustable workstations proposed by the Employer are readily available under prior agreements between AFGE and SSA and meet the specifications in the Federal bidding process.