SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION CHAMPAIGN DISTRICT OFFICE CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS and LOCAL 1395, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

 

In the Matter of

SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

CHAMPAIGN DISTRICT OFFICE

CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS

 

 

 

 

Case No. 96 FSIP 63

and

LOCAL 1395, AMERICAN FEDERATION

OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

ARBITRATOR’S OPINION AND DECISION

      Local 1395 of the 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 section 7119 of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute between it and the Social Security Administration (SSA), Champaign District Office, Champaign, Illinois (Employer). After investigation of the request for assistance involving the relocation of the district office to a newly-constructed building, the Panel directed the parties to mediation-arbitration before the undersigned. The Panel specified that a binding decision would be issued with respect to any unresolved issues, and that the arbitrator would be limited to selecting either of the parties’ final proposals submitted during the arbitration hearing, to the extent that the proposals are otherwise lawful. On May 13, 1996, after intensive mediation efforts failed to resolve the dispute, a hearing was conducted to complete the factual record of the case. The parties submitted some documentary evidence during the hearing in support of their positions. The Employer also submitted a posthearing brief.(1) The record is now closed.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer is responsible for taking and processing applications, and administering the programs for Social Security benefits, Medicare, and Supplemental Security income (SSI) entitlement. In the Champaign District Office, the Union represents approximately 15 General Schedule (GS) bargaining-unit employees, who occupy a variety of nonprofessional positions, such as clerk, and service and claims representative. They are responsible for handling the administrative duties involved in processing and resolving claim requests. The parties’ National collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) was due to expire on November 17, 1996, but was recently extended for a 3-year period.

ISSUES AT IMPASSE

    The parties essentially disagree over the extent to which modifications should be made to the inside of the office.

1. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes the following modifications: (1) glass panels in the reception area door, the door to the front-end-interviewing (FEI) area, and the private-interviewing-room door on the employee side; (2) plexiglass "sneeze" shields across each workstation; (3) workstation panels 67 inches in height; (4) an additional window in the private-interviewing room; (5) a buzzer lock for the door leading from the reception area to the FEI area, with a buzzer release button on the employee side of the reception-area door; (6) no tables, nor any objects currently on tables, next to the 72-inch wall separating the reception and interior office areas; (7) an additional mirror in the reception area; (8) three workstations in the reception area, one for stand-up interviews, one for sit-down interviews, and one which is "handicap accessible;" and (9) a floor-to-ceiling wall in the FEI area.

    Overall, most of its proposals are necessary to ensure the health and safety of employees. In this regard, the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, along with Congressional passage of the "Contract With America Advancement Act" earlier this year, which requires SSA to inform people who receive disability benefits because of alcoholism or drug addiction that they could lose their benefits by January 1, 1997, have heightened employees’ safety concerns. A glass panel in the reception-area door with a buzzer release button on the employee side would allow employees to observe claimants and admit them into the FEI area, without requiring employees to enter the reception area, as they currently do. Glass panels in the doors to the FEI area and the private-interviewing room would increase the visibility of employees and, in the case of the door to the FEI area, keep members of the public from walking into each other. Plexiglass sneeze shields would protect employees from contracting communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis, and prevent claimants from reaching out and grabbing employees. Moreover, contrary to the Employer’s assertions, the shields could be mounted so that they do not impede the conduct of the interview.

    Its proposal for workstations with 67-inch panels is merely an attempt to hold the Employer to its previous written assurances that panels of precisely that height would be procured from the manufacturer. While the private-interviewing room currently is not being used for claimant interviews, it probably will be in the future. To maximize employee security, therefore, an additional window should be installed so that employees in interior office areas are better able to see into the room.

    The reception area currently has pamphlets, forms, and other informational materials located on tables next to a 72-inch wall separating it from interior office areas. Because hostile claimants could easily throw those objects over the wall, or use the tables to climb over the wall and confront employees, they should be removed from their current locations in the reception area. Moreover, an additional mirror should be mounted so that employees would have a full view of all claimants in the sitting area. This would maximize the productivity and security of receptionists, and permit employees to make sure that claimants are not threatening each other.

    With respect to the number of workstations in the reception area, during previous negotiations the Employer had agreed to three after the Union dropped a proposal that workstations be mounted on a platform. This is supported by the fact that the floorplan submitted by the Employer in March of this year contained three workstations. On the merits of its proposal, three workstations would accommodate stand-up and sit-down interviews, as well as physically disabled claimants and employees, and prevent claimants from towering over employees while reception-area interviews are being conducted. Finally, its last proposal for a floor-to-ceiling wall in the FEI area next to the private-interviewing room should be adopted because it would enhance security in the FEI area, and was part of the Employer’s April 8, 1996, floorplan.

2. The Employer’s Position

    As its last best offer, the Employer proposes that its floorplan of April 8, 1996, be adopted to resolve the parties’ dispute. Management would provide two "K1" workstations in the reception area and six "E93 or E95" workstations in the FEI area, to be configured as depicted in the floorplan. In addition, "the height of the panels of each FEI and K1 workstation will be the maximum available for that unit." It also "will install a peephole or window in the door separating the reception area and the interior of the office." Finally, a floor-to-ceiling wall between the last FEI workstation and the private-interviewing room "is and has been a part of management’s proposed floorplan and is totally acceptable."

    The Union’s final offer should not be adopted, among other reasons, because it contains some proposals over which there is no duty to bargain. In this regard, (1) the Union’s proposals concerning the glass panel in the door between the FEI and reception room areas, and the removal of tables and objects next to the 72-inch wall in the FEI/reception area, do not concern conditions of employment of bargaining-unit employees; and (2) its sneeze shield and buzzer lock proposals are already covered by Article 9 of the parties’ National CBA on health and safety.(2)

    The Union’s final offer also should not be adopted because it is "impractical, incurs unnecessary costs, impedes communication essential to the mission of the agency, is insulting/degrading to members of the public, and proposes unworkable solutions to speculative problems." More specifically, the Union’s proposal for a glass panel in the reception area door is less effective than a "fish-eye type peephole" for detecting someone standing near the door, while its proposal for a glass panel in the private interviewing room "does not address any real need." In this regard, the room has not been used since the relocation, and its use by bargaining-unit employees for interviews is expected to be infrequent. Moreover, there is already one glass window next to the employee-side entrance which "permits a full view of the entire room." The installation of plexiglass sneeze shields across FEI workstations is not feasible, and "will likely void the manufacturer’s warranty on this furniture." It also would impede communication with claimants, many of whom are hard of hearing, and "is an affront to the dignity of our patrons." Finally, plexiglass shields would interfere with the placement of the workstation’s computer, and could pose a safety problem.

    With respect to the height of the workstations, local bargaining on the matter is limited to choosing panel heights from among those normally available from the manufacturer. Because the exact dimensions of the workstations have been evolving due to changes in manufacturers, management’s proposal that the height of the panels of each FEI and reception-counter workstation would be the maximum available for that unit is practical and can unquestionably be accomplished, unlike the Union’s. Consistent with its position concerning a glass panel in the door to the private-interviewing room, there is also no need for another window as the existing one provides a full view of the room. The Union’s buzzer-door proposal is inconsistent with SSA’s general intent in having FEI areas. In this regard, almost half of the 1,364 field offices nationwide have no FEI areas, and interviews in these offices are conducted throughout the office at the claims representative’s permanent workstation. In the majority of the FEI offices, "the public is not physically prevented from entry to the interior of the office," but the intent is merely to limit the public’s ease of accessibility throughout the office. The Employer’s floorplan and furniture configuration for the Champaign District Office is consistent with SSA’s practice in comparable geographical areas throughout the country, while "a buzzer door between public areas provides limited if any additional enhancement to employee safety."

    The Union’s concerns that members of the public will use the tables to climb over the 72-inch wall separating the reception area from the interior of the office, or throw items over the wall, "are extremely speculative and not founded in fact." Moreover, a mirror in addition to the convex one which already provides a view of the public sitting area "would serve no useful purpose." Finally, the Union’s proposal for three workstations in the reception area would require the tearing down of a wall and a door. This is unnecessary given that "all K1 workstations are adjustable on the employee side for a standing or sitting position," and because one of the workstations is specifically designed to allow physically disabled members of the public or employees to sit when reception-area interviews are conducted. There also is no demonstrated need for a third workstation, as "the office has previously had two reception workstations."

CONCLUSION

    In accordance with the Panel’s instructions, because the parties were unable to reach an agreement during the mediation phase of our proceeding, I must select one of the parties’ final offers to resolve the entire dispute. Having carefully considered the parties’ arguments and evidence in this case, I am persuaded that the Employer’s final offer is more reasonable than the Union’s. In this regard, the record demonstrates that the facility’s configuration and security arrangements are comparable to that of other district offices in the surrounding geographical area, and that a third workstation in the reception area is unnecessary. After spending the entire day in the new building, my impression is that it provides a pleasant physical environment for employees and claimants alike. Moreover, existing physical barriers appeared to discourage visitors from entering interior office areas without projecting a siege mentality, which is an important consideration if the SSA is to perform its mission in a customer-friendly manner. In my view, adoption of the Employer’s final offer should preserve this appropriate balance between the security needs of its employees and its mission requirements.

    The Union’s final offer, on the other hand, would not. The Union essentially argues that the current climate of violence against Federal employees warrants the introduction of extraordinary safety measures in SSA field offices, and that physical assaults are likely to increase in the near future when drug addicts and alcoholics who have been receiving disability benefits are informed that such payments could cease. While I respect the Union’s legitimate safety concerns, the implementation of the modifications it proposes would at most lead only to a marginal increase in employees’ comfort levels. They would not, however, provide realistic protections against an individual who is truly determined to do harm. Any increase in employees’ sense of security also would be at the expense of the Employer’s mission, which is to provide efficient and courteous service to claimants.

    As the Employer points out, higher level AFGE and SSA representatives have already negotiated a number of agreements intended to ensure the health and safety of bargaining-unit employees. One such agreement, introduced by the Union during the mediation phase of the proceeding, is particularly noteworthy in that it spec