DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS VA REGIONAL OFFICE ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI and LOCAL 2192, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

In the Matter of

DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

VA REGIONAL OFFICE

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

 

and

LOCAL 2192, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF

GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

 

Case No. 97 FSIP 8

ARBITRATOR’S OPINION AND DECISION

    Local 2192, 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 section 7119 of the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (Statute) between it and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Affairs Regional Office, St. Louis, Missouri (VARO or Employer). After investigation of the request for assistance, which concerns whether the wearing of blue jeans and sneakers by certain bargaining-unit employees should be prohibited, the Panel directed the parties to mediation-arbitration before the undersigned at the VARO, St. Louis, Missouri. Accordingly, on February 4, 1997, the undersigned met with the parties and first engaged in mediation. The parties created some options for resolving the issue but were unable to come to an agreement, and the matter moved to arbitration. Affidavits were provided stipulating to testimony that the witnesses would have given had they been called, and a time table for receipt of written statements was established. The parties exchanged written arguments on February 14, 1997, and the original documents were forwarded to the undersigned.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer, 1 of 57 regional offices nationally, provides compensation, pension, educational, death, burial, and loan guarantee benefits to veterans. Local 2192 represents 350 bargaining-unit employees who are part of a nationwide, consolidated unit of some 120,000 employees. They work as veterans benefit counselors, vocational rehabilitation specialists, field examiners, loan guarantee specialists, property management technicians, appraisers, adjudicators, receptionists, and in other support positions. The parties’ successor master collective bargaining agreement (MCBA) was awaiting ratification at the time of the mediation-arbitration proceeding. As soon as the MCBA is ratified, the local supplemental agreement is to be renegotiated.

ISSUE AT IMPASSE

    Are blue jeans and sneakers appropriate office attire for some of the employees in this bargaining unit?

THE PARTIES’ POSITIONS(*)

1. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer argues that it is responsible for ensuring timely and efficient operations through the implementation of local policies which ensure that goal. It insists that the dress code is one component of the strategy to continue to enhance service to veterans. The proposed code establishes clear, definitive criteria for casual business dress and is easily administered. It merely implements the nationally agreed-to code which states "extremely casual clothing . . . is always inappropriate." The Director believes that blue jeans and tennis shoes are "extremely casual" and unprofessional. Further, they reduce the productivity of the employees. The proposed code is intended to increase accuracy and customer satisfaction, as well as to improve the public image of this office. The facility is a showcase where visitors frequently tour because of its uniqueness.

    The Employer agrees that these employees process a large volume of claims, but suggests that measurable improvement is desirable especially in the Education Department. Further, the proposed code will improve the bargaining-unit employees’ attitudes toward each other, the supervisors, and the veterans. Next, the Employer asserts that the proposed policy conforms to local business practices, and that requiring employees to wear dockers instead of blue jeans will not adversely impact them. It urges adoption of the proposed dress code which prohibits the wearing of blue jeans except on dress down days.

2. The Union’s Position

    The Union asserts, on the other hand, that there is a past practice which allows employees who do not interview veterans, i.e., those working claims, to wear blue jeans and sneakers. These employees regularly carry stacks of case files from tables to their desks. Further, they work in cubicles where they are not easily visible unless someone walks to the cubicle and looks in to see the employee at work. Moreover, the Union asserts that many local businesses as well as other Veterans Affairs offices allow blue jeans and tennis shoes for employees except those who actually interview veterans. The proposed local dress policy is more restrictive than the national dress policy.

    Next, the Union showed a video tape from Levi Strauss, a jeans manufacturer, demonstrating the "business casual look" of blue jeans in the office environment. The Union also insists that the purchase, upkeep, and continuous replacement of other types of casual clothing is very expensive for these bargaining-unit employees. Whereas blue jeans, once purchased, have a longer life even with regular upkeep, are more durable and, therefore, do not require as frequent replacement. The Union urges continuation of the practice of wearing blue jeans and sneakers and the adoption of their proposed dress code.

OPINION

    The agency has the burden to demonstrate that a more restrictive dress code policy prohibiting blue jeans and sneakers is warranted. The evidence is mixed regarding local business practices concerning blue jeans. However, the videotape and evidence support the Union’s contention that blue jeans, which are clean, neat, and intact, are acceptable in many local business settings such as McDonnell Douglas Aerospace (Un. Exh. I, dated August 15, 1996), and that the dress code should not be changed to prohibit the wearing of blue jeans which are neat and clean. Moreover, the video tape establishes that the trend is toward the wearing of casual business attire in the workplace.

    Further, the Union’s assertion that productivity of investigative claims is so high that other regional offices send VARO, St. Louis, boxes of back claims is reinforced by management’s admission that boxes of files had arrived the day of the hearing from another VARO to be processed in St. Louis. The Employer could not substantiate its speculation that accuracy rates would rise in the Education Department if employees wore other types of casual clothing but not blue jeans.

    The national policy lists several examples of "extremely casual clothing" which do not include neat, clean, intact blue jeans--subsection 5 specifies "informal shorts, T-shirts, halter tops, athletic suits, and clothing of a provocative nature." In addition, the policy states expressly that Veterans Claims Examiners, who are the largest group of bargaining-unit employees in question, do have limited public contact.

    The undersigned toured the work area which is clearly marked with signs at the elevators that the public is not allowed access. She also observed the stacks of files on tables with each Claim Examiner’s name. While the file clerk delivers the files to the tables, the Examiner carries the stacks of files to her/his desk to investigate each one and to return them to the table for refiling. Moreover, each Examiner has an assigned cubicle with divider walls which make it difficult to see the Examiner from the normal walkways unless the visitor walks to the cubicle and looks into the doorway or the employee is in the walkway. The Employer provided a list of visitors, many of whom allegedly toured the facility. It argued that even though there is "limited public" access, this facility has a high volume of visitors, many of whom are high-level officials.

    In conclusion, the Employer did not demonstrate that there was in fact a negative impact on productivity or that the visitors were generally able to observe employee dress. Rather, in the final analysis, this issue seems to revolve around the Director’s personal opinion which is that blue jeans and sneakers are not casual business attire and, therefore, he wants to restrict the wearing of such attire in the St. Louis VARO. Simply stated, personal preference is not a legitimate reason to change the dress code policy. Otherwise, the management’s proposed dress code (Er. Exh. 6) is adopted.

DECISION

       The parties shall adopt the Employer’s dress code proposal (Attachment D of the Union’s request for Panel assistance), except that denims, such as blue jeans, and sneakers shall not be included in the local dress code as prohibited casual clothing. More specifically, Section 4 of Attachment D shall be modified as follows:

    Add Subsection D to Section 4:

D. Employees who have limited public contact as defined in the VBA Circular 20-94-7 may wear clean neat denim clothing and sneakers.

In addition, Section 7 of Attachment D shall be amended to provide an implementation date of June 1, 1997.

 

Bonnie Prouty Castrey

Arbitrator

April 5, 1997

Huntington Beach, California

 

*The current dress code policy for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) reads:

Employee Office Attire

 

1. PURPOSE: This circular establishes guidelines for office attire.

2. GENERAL: Due to the nature of our operations, VBA employees generally complete work assignments in an office environment. The extent of an employee’s public contact, consistent with VA regulations, should be considered in determining appropriate attire.

3. For example, Veterans Benefits Counselors typically have daily public contact, as opposed to Veterans Claims Examiners who have limited public contact.

4. Employees who frequently meet the public should dress in a manner app