DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION WALNUT CREEK DISTRICT OFFICE WALNUT CREEK, CALIFORNIA AND LOCAL 3172, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO
In the Matter of
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
WALNUT CREEK DISTRICT OFFICE
WALNUT CREEK, CALIFORNIA
LOCAL 3172, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF
GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO
Local 3172, 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 Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, Walnut Creek District Office, Walnut Creek, California (Employer or SSA).
After investigation of the request for assistance, the Panel determined that the impasse concerning the height of the employees' side of a reception counter should be resolved on the basis of abbreviated written submissions, with the Panel to take whatever action it deemed appropriate to resolve the dispute.
The Employer provides service to the public in the areas of retirement, disability, Medicare, and Supplemental Security Income entitlements. The Union represents approximately 27 bargaining-unit employees who are part of a nationwide consolidated unit of 46,700. They work as claims and service representatives, and clerks. The master collective bargaining agreement expired on January 24, 1993; a successor agreement is being negotiated.
The dispute arose during impact-and-implementation bargaining over the Employer's decision to renovate the district office, including the reception counter where service representatives assist walk-in clients.(1) The parties have agreed to lower the original reception counter on the public side from 42 to 39 inches. They also agreed that the office affords no room for a platform on the employees' side which would adjust for the height difference between seated employees and standing clients.
The dispute concerns the height at which the employees' side of the reception counter should be set.
1. The Employer's Position
The Employer proposes that the service representatives' side of the reception counter designed for "express-type interviews lasting only a few minutes" be 37 inches. As a consequence, employees would be provided with stools rather than chairs; the Employer hopes, budget permitting, to provide upgraded, ergonomic-type stools. At this height, employees would be close to or at eye level with standing clients thereby avoiding neck strain and long reaches associated with the 30-inch height proposed by the Union. Furthermore, they would be able to get up and down quickly when retrieving forms, thereby assuring rapid service to the 150 to 200 daily clients. Using stools also would avoid development of the lower back strain associated with extensive sitting and the strain from rising out of a chair on arthritic knees. While SSA has successfully used stand-up counters for many years, the Union cannot draw on the same long-term experience to support its sit-down, two-tiered counter plan. Finally, the Union's proposal would cost $1,000 to $2,000 more than its proposal because the window heights also would have to be lowered to match the counter height.
2. The Union's Position
The Union proposes a 30-inch counter height, with angled cutouts in a direct line with the video display terminal for computer keyboards, and one stand-up window. This arrangement would permit affected employees to sit in ergonomic chairs with proper body alignment for computer use during client interviews; the stand-up window would be available for employees who wish to vary their working position between sitting and standing. The design would also help to protect them from strain-related injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Within the last year, the same basic design was agreed to at nine other district and branch offices in the region. In addition, an agreement subsequent to an arbitrator's award involving a branch office in Hawaii appears to include the same counter dimension. Employees at a location where the two-tiered counter is in use, and others responding to a Union survey, indicate that they prefer the sit-down counter. Since their work requires employees to get up frequently to obtain forms, computer print-outs, and to speak with other employees, they are unlikely to develop lower back strain related to long periods of sitting. The stools that employees might be given under the Employer's proposal, on the other hand, are cumbersome and hard to dismount.
Having considered the evidence and arguments presented by the parties, we conclude that they should adopt the Union's proposal to resolve the dispute. We are persuaded that a 30-inch-high counter, appropriate for use with a chair, would be convenient for service representatives who must add and change data in computers located on that surface while they converse with clients. Guidance, in an article(2) on computer-related seating, confirms that the use of a chair in conjunction with an eye-level video display terminal and a keyboard at a level that allows wrists to remain flat, as proposed by the Union, provides protections from repetitive strain disorders. Such spatial relationships appear to be superior to those the Employer proposes. Furthermore, the record reveals that the Union's design has been adopted by a number of branch and district SSA offices. According to the Union, where the two-tiered counter is in use, employees report no difficulties with the height difference between themselves and clients. Finally, although the Union's proposal would appear to be more costly than the Employer's, we find the additional expense to be reasonable, given the protections it would provide to the health of employees.