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 McDon