The Health and Human Services Department is in a dispute with a union representing 14,000 employees, which risks exacerbating staff shortages among doctors and scientists involved in prescription drug reviews, food safety and other public health responses.
The labor spat is drawing attention from lawmakers as some employees plan to picket at HHS headquarters briefly Thursday afternoon.
HHS ended negotiations in August with the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers across 33 government bodies, after the agency pushed for benefit changes, proposing to eliminate provisions in contracts relating to things like flexible schedules, telework and commuting subsidies. Its positions stem from a broader administration effort to crack down on telework and an anti-union sentiment in Republican-controlled Washington.
But cutting back employee benefits, the union warns, would alienate some of the employees whom HHS is struggling to retain and attract, such as Food and Drug Administration scientists reviewing new drugs and lab workers investigating disease outbreaks. Some of those employees include medical doctors and others with advanced degrees who can often make more money in the private sector.
“Federal employees choose careers in public service — even when many could earn far higher salaries and other attractive incentives in the private sector — because they are committed to the mission of serving their fellow Americans,” Tony Reardon, the NTEU’s national president, said in a statement. “But if HHS insists on a contract that no longer makes it an attractive employer and one that values and listens to its own employees, the agency risks losing and being unable to recruit experienced, knowledgeable employees.”
Watch: GOP Shifts Messaging on Health Care Ahead of Midterm Elections
The union cited a survey among its HHS employees that said 60 percent would consider looking elsewhere for employment if a new contract wasn’t negotiated in good faith.
HHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The NTEU represents workers throughout several HHS divisions, including the FDA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the divisions that handle health workforce training, health statistics, the Head Start school readiness programs, and federal programs for the elderly and disabled.
According to the NTEU, HHS had proposed eliminating 21 articles — about two-thirds — of the labor union contract. In addition to no longer guaranteeing telework, the contract would limit employees’ ability to challenge disciplinary actions or other management decisions, union officials said.
HHS did not compromise on its positions and almost immediately declared that it was at an impasse with the union. That declaration means that the dispute will now be taken up by the Federal Services Impasse Panel, a seven-member body made up entirely of Republican appointees.
The panel could consider the HHS proposal as soon as next month.
Lawmakers who represent areas with lots of HHS employees are urging the agency to go back to the bargaining table. “We do not believe that one day of negotiations constitutes a serious effort to engage in good faith negotiations,” six House Democrats from Maryland and Virginia wrote last week. “These workers perform some of the most important work our government does to serve its people.”
That letter followed three others sent by Democrats in September and October, including letters sent by members of both appropriations and authorizing panels with oversight of HHS and labor issues: Patty Murray of Washington, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Robert C. Scott of Virginia.
HHS’ actions followed a series of executive orders in May that were supposed to make it easier for federal agencies to fire employees, set time limits on negotiations with unions and how much time employees can spend on union activities, and prevent union representatives from using office space at the agencies.
The NTEU filed a lawsuit, and in August, a federal judge ruled that several provisions of those executive orders were unlawful, including the limits on using work time for union affairs and the prohibition on unions using office space. HHS never went as far as kicking union reps out of the HHS headquarters, according to the NTEU, but it stuck with its tactics on collective bargaining.
HHS employees represented by the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal-worker labor union, are having a similar experience, although those discussions have not been sent to the Federal Services Impasse Panel. AFGE represents 700 National Institutes of Health Employees and 2,000 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employees in Atlanta.
HHS’ proposed CDC contract would deny whistleblower protections and prevent employees from filing grievances, according to AFGE. HHS proposed stripping articles from the NIH union contracts relating to safety rules, vacation, sick leave, overtime and work attire.