DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE FARM SERVICE AGENCY STARK COUNTY OFFICE DICKINSON, NORTH DAKOTA and LOCAL 888, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

United States of America

BEFORE THE FEDERAL SERVICE IMPASSES PANEL

In the Matter of

DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

FARM SERVICE AGENCY

STARK COUNTY OFFICE

DICKINSON, NORTH DAKOTA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Case No. 99 FSIP 125

and

LOCAL 888, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF

GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

 

DECISION AND ORDER

    The Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farm Service Agency, Stark County Office, Dickinson, North Dakota (Employer or FSA), 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 Local 888, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO (Union).

    Following an investigation of the request for assistance, the Panel directed the parties to participate in an informal conference with a Panel representative for the purpose of resolving their dispute concerning the construction of a new facility to be located in Stark County, Dickinson, North Dakota. The parties were advised that if no settlement were reached, the Panel’s representative would report to the Panel on the status of the dispute, including the parties’ final offers, and her recommendations for resolving the impasse. After considering this information, the Panel would take whatever action it deemed appropriate to resolve the impasse, including the issuance of a binding decision.

    Accordingly, on September 29, 1999, Panel Representative (Labor Relations Specialist) June M. Marshall conducted an informal conference with the parties at the Employer’s facility in Mandan, North Dakota. During the informal conference, the parties resolved one of the three issues in dispute.(1) Ms. Marshall has reported to the Panel on the remaining two issues and it has now considered the entire record.(2)

BACKGROUND

    The FSA administers farm commodity, crop insurance, and resource conservation programs for farmers, makes loans to agricultural producers through a network of State and county offices, and administers disaster programs and payments. The Union represents approximately 97 bargaining-unit employees throughout the State of North Dakota, who work as loan officers, program technicians and program specialists, at grades GS-5 through GS-12. Although the parties are negotiating separately for a collective bargaining agreement, they are currently operating under an interim agreement with an indefinite term.

ISSUES AT IMPASSE

    The parties basically disagree over: (1) whether the building should have an "open" or a separated office configuration,(3) and (2) what the space utilization rate per employee should be.(4)

POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES

I. Open Office Design

    a. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer proposes an "open office" concept with no permanent walls between it and the other two agencies that would also occupy the new building. All non-supervisory employees from the three agencies, with the exception of loan officers, would be located in a single common work area. The "open office" concept complies with USDA Departmental Regulation DR 1620-2, Appendix A.(5) The concept is less costly and increases the flexibility to adjust agency space allocations when there is an increase or decrease in the number of employees. It also promotes a more customer-friendly environment, employee teamwork, and the "building and bonding" of working relationships between Federal and county employees who offer essentially the same services to USDA customers. Of the 33 employees affected by the construction of the new building, only 3 are bargaining-unit employees. The construction of walls or dividers, as the Union proposes, would frustrate FSA’s goal of creating a team atmosphere simply to satisfy the preferences of three bargaining-unit employees, two of whom will occupy private offices. Furthermore, employees who work in "open offices" at other FSA locations have never complained that noise and distractions interfere with their work, nor has the Employer experienced a reduction in these employees’ productivity.

    b. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes that walls be erected to separate the three agencies. Shared common areas such as the Automated Data Processing room, the break/conference room, and the storage room, however, are acceptable. The Employer misinterprets DR 1620-2. The Directive only requires collocation of USDA agencies--it does not require that employees be seated in a single open office area. Furthermore, the "open office concept" can lead to noise and distractions that increase employees’ stress, thereby reducing their productivity levels. Erecting walls between agencies, by contrast, would control noise and reduce distractions created by customers, other agency employees, and office equipment. If noise and distractions are not controlled, the added stress could lead to strife between the employees of the different agencies. Customer confidentiality also would be compromised when business is conducted in such close quarters. Walls or barriers will help protect such confidentiality. In addition, with no walls or barriers visually separating the agencies, customers may become confused upon entering the office about where to go for service. Dividing the space between agencies, therefore, would be in the best interest of customers, as well as employees.

CONCLUSIONS

    Having carefully reviewed the arguments and evidence presented by the parties, we conclude that the Employer’s proposal provides the better basis for resolving the parties’ impasse on this issue. In our view, the potential problems the Union identifies appear speculative and overstated in light of the fact that only one bargaining-unit employee would be directly affected by the Employer’s open office concept. In this regard, the Union has provided no evidence that FSA employees working in such environments have raised complaints regarding noise and distractions to management, nor does the record support a conclusion that productivity has declined or that client confidentiality has been compromised in similar settings. On the basis of the circumstances presented, therefore, we are unwilling to disturb the Employer’s nationwide policy for providing service to its customers. Accordingly, we shall order the adoption of the Employer’s proposal.

II. Space Utilization Rates

    a. The Employer’s Position

    The Employer proposes that general office space in the new building include 64 sq. ft. workstations, with an additional 61 sq. ft. of circulation area. Among other things, it also proposes a reception area of approximately 400 sq. ft., and a storage area of approximately 485 sq. ft. The proposed work space conforms to DR 1620-2, which requires a 150 sq. ft. utilization rate per employee. County offices nationwide are to follow these guidelines, and the Stark/Dickinson office will be a model for all new FSA offices. A 64 sq. ft. workstation provides more than enough space for employees to perform their work. Moreover, the desires of one bargaining-unit employee should not determine space standards for the overwhelming majority who are not in the unit.

    b. The Union’s Position

    The Union proposes the following wording:

Each Technician, Credit Clerk, and Program assistant will be provided a work station of 75 sq. ft. plus a circulation area of 81 sq. ft. for a total allocation of 156 sq. ft.; the 156 sq. ft. area does not include the reception area, the conference room and the storage area; additional work stations will be made available for two temporary employees, one in the form of a 135 sq. ft. private office; in other offices, additional space for temporary employees should be based on past practice of hiring temporary help; where Agriculture Credit is present, an additional office of 135 sq. ft. will be provided; the circulation area in front of offices and around central workstations will be 48 inches wide; interior aisles between workstations will be 36 inches wide (approximately 680 sq. ft.); the reception area will be 250 sq. ft.; storage area of 707 sq. ft.; offices to be provided 50 sq. ft. storage space for each employee (storage space to include all shelves, cabinets, files, safes, copiers, fax machines, and printers); each private office will have a window.

The Employer’s formulaic approach to determining office space does not take into consideration employees’ actual space needs. Its proposal, on the other hand, is based on previous experiences with tight space allocations and storage needs. For example, the Ward County office in Minot, North Dakota, has both the "open office" concept and the 150 sq. ft. utilization rate the Employer proposes. In that office, employees are crowded practically on top of each other. The proposal takes into account the needed aisle space between desks and accommodations for persons with disabilities that the Employer does not address. Regarding office space for temporary employees, planning for space in advance is more prudent since past practice shows that FSA hires temporaries during peak seasons. It would be inefficient to wait until those employees are hired to locate office space.

CONCLUSIONS

    After thoroughly considering the record on the subjects encompassed by the parties’ proposals on this issue, we believe that the dispute should be resolved on the basis of a compromise solution. As a preliminary matter, in addition to the parties’ disagreement about the overall space utilization rate per employee to be applied, their proposals do not entirely match with respect to the rooms and spaces addressed. In such perplexing circumstances, we are persuaded that the best approach is to provide the parties with some basic starting points to guide them in future negotiations over the building’s final floor plan. Concerning the size of the workstation for the bargaining-unit employee who will be seated in the open area, in our view, the total work space provided should be larger than the amount proposed by the Employer. Thus, compromise wording shall be ordered requiring that the employee’s total work space (workstation and circulation area combined) be approximately 135 sq. ft. While this is less than the Union proposes, it is a sufficient amount for the affected employee, and comparable to what the parties have agreed to provide the two other unit employees who will have private offices. On another matter addressed by the Union’s proposal, we shall impose wording requiring that private offices have at least one window. During the informal conference, the Employer raised no objection to doing so, and the proposal appears reasonable.

    As to the other matters involving square footage, we conclude that the Union has not justified its proposed departure from the overall space utilization rate established in DR 1620-2. Therefore, the Employer shall be permitted to determine the square footage of the building using that rate, adjusted as necessary to include the 135 sq. ft. total work area for the bargaining-unit employee described above. Regarding the remaining subparts of the proposals, for example, the sizes of the reception and storage areas, it would be imprudent to tackle those subjects before the outside dimensions of the building are established. Furthermore, it is our understanding that many matters were never fully explored during previous negotiations, and that the parties contemplated that additional negotiations would be necessary in any case. Accordingly, we also shall order that the parties bargain over any negotiable matters concerning the facility’s final floor plan not addressed by this decision after the Employer has determined the outside dimensions of the building.

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 pursuant to the Panel’s regulations, 5 U.S.C. § 2471.6(a)(2), the Federal Service Impasses Panel under § 2471.11(a) of its regulations hereby orders the following:

I. Open Office Design

    The parties shall adopt the Employer’s proposal.

II. Space Utilization Rates

    The parties shall adopt the following wording:

General office space for bargaining-unit employees shall be approximately 135 sq. ft. which shall include the employee’s workstation plus the circulation area surrounding the workstation. Private offices occupied by bargaining-unit employees will have at least one window. The parties will negotiate a final floor plan once the outside dimensions of the building are known, taking into consideration the overall design of the office and additional space requirements (e.g., storage space, reception counter, aisle and corridor width).

 

By direction of the Panel.

H. Joseph Schimansky

Executive Director

November 8, 1999

Washington, D.C.

1.Settlement was reached on the issue of “open windows.” The parties agreed that the builder will make the final determination on the design of the windows. If the building is climate-controlled, i.e., the windows do not open, a minimum of 10 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of fresh air will be provided at all times and the Employer will have the airflow tested for conformity.

2.At the informal conference, the Union showed a brief video of the Ward County, Minot, North Dakota office as evidence in support of its position. The video was reviewed by the Panel during its deliberations process. The Employer’s position that the video is neither conclusive nor a fair representation of the 150 sq. ft. utilization rate c