DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION OFFICE OF HEARINGS AND APPEALS DALLAS REGION DALLAS, TEXAS and LOCAL 3506, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

United States of America

BEFORE THE FEDERAL SERVICE IMPASSES PANEL

In the Matter of

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

AND HUMAN SERVICES

SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION

OFFICE OF HEARINGS AND APPEALS

DALLAS REGION

DALLAS, TEXAS

and

LOCAL 3506, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF

GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

Case No. 94 FSIP 73

DECISION AND ORDER

    Local 3506, 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, 5 U.S.C. § 7119, between it and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Social Security Administration (SSA), Office of Hearings and Appeals, Dallas Region, Dallas, Texas (Employer).

    After investigation of the request for assistance, the Panel directed the parties to participate in a telephone conference with Staff Associate Gladys M. Hernandez for the purpose of resolving their dispute over the assignment of seating and parking spaces at the Dallas Downtown Hearing Office. The parties were advised that if no settlement were reached, Ms. Hernandez 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.

    Ms. Hernandez held a telephone conference with the parties on June 22, 1994. With her assistance, the parties resolved the parking issue. She has reported to the Panel on the seating assignment issue based on the record developed by the parties. The Panel has now considered the entire record.

BACKGROUND

    The Employer, 1 of 96 hearing offices (HO) nationwide, is responsible for adjudicating appeals of denials of retirement, survivors, medicare, disability, black lung, and supplemental security income claims, and defending its appellate decisions before the Federal courts. The Union represents approximately 390 General Schedule (GS) employees in the Dallas Region. The dispute, however, concerns only approximately 18 GS-5 through -8 hearing assistants, hearing clerks, and computer analysts working in the Dallas Downtown HO.(1) They are part of a nationwide consolidated bargaining unit of 48,200, covered by a collective-bargaining agreement due to expire on November 17, 1996.

    The dispute arose during negotiations over the pending relocation of the Employer's Dallas Downtown HO from the Earl Cabell Federal Building to the Belo Building, 4 or 5 blocks away. As is relevant to the disputed issue, the record reveals that the Dallas Downtown HO processes its cases under the "unit system" wherein hearing clerks and assistants are assigned to specific Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Employees work only on those cases assigned to their ALJ. The HO also has a few unassigned employees known as "floaters" who work on the "overflow" cases of any one of the ALJs. Currently, 12 hearing clerks and assistants are assigned to ALJs, 2 new ones are awaiting assignment, and 3 are "floaters." The system used by other Dallas Region HOs, for example, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, is the "reconfigured system" where employees work on cases assigned to any one of the ALJs. Under both systems, employees' casework involves the use of single evidentiary files, as opposed to computer files.

ISSUE AT IMPASSE

    The parties basically disagree over whether all bargaining-unit employees at the Dallas Downtown HO or just those not assigned to work for a specific ALJ will be allowed to select their seats.

POSITIONS OF THE PARTIES

1. The Employer's Position

    Under the Employer's proposal, only those employees "not assigned to an ALJ" would be allowed to choose their seats. The "team work implicit in the unit system" requires the "close coordination and physical proximity" of all employees assigned to the same ALJ to function effectively and efficiently. The "approach" to case processing under the "unit system" also requires that all employees assigned to an ALJ be seated in close proximity to him or her and each other.(2) Moreover, the floor plan of the new offices was designed to accommodate such seating arrangement. The Employer's proposal allows for close proximity seating for employees assigned to ALJs "while maintaining flexibility toward those who are floaters." It is willing to allow floaters "to choose among the remaining seating according to any method the Union cares to propose."

    Under the Union's proposal, because of the physical layout of the new offices, employees assigned to the same ALJ could be separated from each other, the ALJ, or the decision writer (staff attorneys) "by the length of the building." The "unit system" could not operate efficiently if such were the case. With employees assigned to the same ALJ, that is, on the same "team," using single evidentiary files in their case work, having them "strung out all over the building" would create "logistic problems." Such problems could "multiply" until it would not be "feasible" for the Employer to continue to operate under the "unit system." The Union, therefore, is attempting to do indirectly what it ca