Unions Say No Discipline For Feds Who Won’t Work

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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Three cases before Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) in recent years demonstrate the seemingly impossible tasks facing federal supervisors trying to manage the government efficiently and effectively.

In the first case, federal firefighters in Arizona refused to abide by best-safety practices instituted after their firehouse failed a readiness inspection and their government employee union successfully fought to ensure that they could not be forced to observe the new procedures or be punished for refusing to do so.

The union even had a significant role in drafting the “standard operating guidelines,” yet several members of the Fort Huachucha, Ariz., Army fire department didn’t want to follow the new procedures.

Their boss said “that it was a critical safety issue that the firefighters read and understand the content of the SOGs” and gave them a month to initial the new guidelines. Then he gave them an extension. When they still refused, he initially decided to suspend them for three days, but relented and changed it to one day.

Still, the American Federation of Government Employees was outraged that the recalcitrant firefighters would have to miss a day of work as punishment for refusing to follow upgraded safety procedures.

The union filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which found that suspending employees who refuse to do their jobs as required “did not promote the efficiency” of the federal workplace.

An arbiter found that the firefighters “failed to carry out the instructions of the agency, but that the decision to suspend the grievants for one day did not promote the efficiency of the service,” according to an FLRA docket. He ordered them to be paid for the day they stayed home.

The agency appealed the decision, saying that “the arbitrator’s ‘prohibition on requiring the reading of the SOGs and initialing as having read them’ interferes with the agency’s right to assign work.” But the FLRA’s top panel sided with the union on appeal.

In the second case, a unionized civilian electrician working for the Army was arrested for embezzlement after being caught on video loading his truck with spools of wire from the base and stealing it. The union said that he shouldn’t be disciplined until after his criminal trial.

The Army waited two months, but the trial still hadn’t come, so it moved ahead with suspending him for 14 days after he was “given every opportunity to rebut the allegations against him.”

But after his lawyer revealed that he would not be charged criminally, the union said he still couldn’t be disciplined for stealing from Uncle Sam because prosecutors could change their minds, so his employer should continue to wait indefinitely. In other words, an employee can’t be disciplined until after a criminal trial, but also can’t be disciplined if there isn’t one pending, because the result might spur one.

So after first begging for delays, saying it was unfair to move too fast, the union then argued he couldn’t be disciplined because proceedings had moved too slowly. The “agency did not timely impose the disciplinary action,” the union argued.

Next, the union argued that government employees couldn’t be disciplined unless their employer can build a body of evidence against them so indisputable that it meets a “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold.

Luckily for management, they had indisputable video evidence. But collecting evidence that convincing was too intrusive, the union said, arguing that it “violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments” for an Army base to have cameras on its property.

In this case, the FLRA sided with the Army, causing the electrician to serve his meager two-week suspension and face no other repercussions for the theft.

In a third case, a member of the National Air Traffic Controllers union didn’t show up for work one day, without calling or using vacation. (It is unclear whether she was an air traffic controller or related professional in which a missed shift could cause grave danger.)

Her punishment was a one-day suspension. The union objected, and an arbiter agreed, again finding that expecting federal employees show up for work didn’t “promote the efficiency of the [federal] service,” and that she should get “back pay” for the suspension.

The FLRA appeals hearing agreed, meaning that the punishment for not showing up to work one day was … another paid day off.

All three cases were decided in 2011 and were pulled from the FLRA case database by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

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