By Deborah Hopkins, January 23, 2019
We’re just over three weeks into the new year and it’s safe to say, the state of the civil service hasn’t seen darker days in quite some time – if ever. There has been a lot happening (and a lot NOT happening, unfortunately), and with the ever-shortened news cycles, there’s a chance that blink-and-you-might-miss-it information may have passed you by.
Let’s take a look at where we are, and where we might be going, as it relates to our loyal FELTG readers.
The Longest Shutdown Ever
Supposedly only 25 percent of the federal government is shut down, but it sure feels like a lot more, doesn’t it? If you’re furloughed and about to miss your second paycheck, or if you’ve been working for a month without getting paid, you feel the pain more each day. Contractors are getting crushed from the lack of business, as are restaurants and other business owners who rely on federal employees to keep afloat. And those of you whose agencies have been operational have also had to deal with some headaches, including rumors of travel restrictions that end up being just rumors, cancelled conferences and events, and plummeting morale among federal employees.
It’s ugly and I hope it ends soon. I know more than a few federal employees who are done waiting on this to be resolved and have decided to seek employment in the private sector. That’s a shame because these are wonderful, brilliant, amazing people whose departures will be a huge loss to the government.
Despite the lack of meaningful movement on the aforementioned shutdown, the House recently passed a bill (originally introduced in 2017) that addresses discrimination and sexual harassment in federal agencies. The Federal Antidiscrimination Act amends the NO FEAR Act and clarifies that the role of agency EEO offices shall operate independently of HR and OGC. OK that’s fine, no big deal, right?
Just wait. Further on down, you’ll see that the law would require the EEOC to inform the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) of all findings of discrimination or retaliation in its appeals. OSC will then review the case for the purposes of seeking disciplinary action against the employee who engaged in discrimination or reprisal. From my read, it looks like agencies will not be allowed to discipline that employee once OSC gets involved, effectively leaving the decision on how to discipline up to OSC and not the agency.
This bill moves on to the Senate next, so we’ll see what those 100 folks on the hill have to say about it all.
January 7 marked two full years since MSPB had a quorum. That’s two years of Petitions for Review stacking up, day after day, added to the pile that can’t be issued as Opinions & Orders because the sole member, Acting Chairman Mark Robbins, needs at least one other member to make a quorum and issue decisions. Our estimates are somewhere between 1,600 and 1,700 PFRs waiting to be addressed.
You might remember, late last November the Senate Committee had a scheduled vote on the nominees the President had put forward. Senator Rand Paul refused to cast the vote that would have advanced them out of the committee and to the full Senate for a vote.
Well, if the news couldn’t be any stranger, last week the President re-nominated the very same three people to be Board members: Dennis Dean Kirk, Andrew Maunz, and Julia Akins Clark. At FELTG, we were scratching our heads and wondering what the heck was going on because Senator Paul is still on the committee. While the committee is made up of 8 Republicans and 7 Democrats, a “no” vote by Senator Paul would result in a 7-7 tie and the nominees would not be advanced. If he decides to abstain, then the Republicans would have a one-vote advantage and the nominees would be advanced to the full Senate for a vote, where the Republicans have a 53-47 advantage. Or, maybe a Democrat or two on the committee plans to vote “yea” as was almost always the case in these types of bi-partisan boards and commissions until very recently.
Who knows? We can’t predict the future but we WILL keep you posted.
Amid all the shutdown talk, did you happen to see that EEOC no longer has a quorum of Commissioners? That’s right, out of a five-member commission only two remain because Commissioner Chai Feldblum was not re-confirmed. (Look elsewhere in this newsletter for details about that.) Last week the President re-nominated one person, Janet Dhillon, to serve as Commissioner but as of this writing, no confirmation hearing was scheduled.
The good(ish) news for you is that the lack of quorum at EEOC doesn’t have much impact at all on federal employees. The Office of Federal Operations, which is responsible for issuing decisions on EEOC Appeals, is still functional and Administrative Judges are still issuing decisions. Well, except not really … they’re all furloughed for now. So, if the government re-opens, EEOC will be mostly business as usual, besides, of course, the calendar nightmare of a month’s worth of missed hearings, pre-hearing conferences, etc.
Chairman Colleen Duffy Kiko, who heads up the Federal Labor Relations Authority, recently decertified the employee union at FLRA. She reasoned that by having a union at FLRA, the agency was actually violating the labor relations statute it was created to enforce; because employees at FLRA work with federal labor relations law they should be excluded from being in a union, per the language of the statute. How about that? Our friends over at FedSmith have written about this in detail, if you’re interested in the nitty gritty.
The federal government’s central HR office, while itself partially impacted by the furlough, has offered some guidance on this (ridiculous) shutdown, including topics such as what happens to leave accrual for furloughed employees (spoiler alert: it stops) and how healthcare and retirement benefits are impacted.
Late in December, you may have seen that OPM posted template letters for federal employees impacted by the shutdown – letters that requested landlords allow tenants to barter services such as painting and landscaping in exchange for reduced rent. As you can imagine, it did not go over well, and OPM quickly withdrew the letters, stating that they were posted by mistake.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (not to be confused with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team) is closed during the shutdown. Its website has still been accepting online complaints but a disclaimer states that the complaints likely won’t be reviewed until after OSC reopens. So, whistleblowers can file but they won’t see an investigation until this all ends.
The federal unions, including NTEU, NATCA, and AFGE, are keeping busy with a lot to challenge, most specifically the fact that nearly half a million federal employees have been required to work without pay for almost a month. I saw an argument in a district court filing that said the requirement to work without pay was akin to involuntary servitude, which is a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition against slavery. NTEU is also challenging the recalls to work that were more recently issued to more than 40,000 IRS employees who were not considered essential in December but are being required to work without pay now.
So, there you have it. People usually start a new year with excitement and hope, but this one is sure giving us all some challenges.
At FELTG, we are doing our best to stay positive and stay available to answer your questions, provide you with content, and even do some training while we wait for the world to right itself again.
Take care, my friends. Hopkins@FELTG.com