TONY REARDON: 'Illegal and unfortunate.'

This summer’s "commute from hell" in the  Washington D.C. area has prompted an about-face by the Trump Administration, which had previously planned to limit telecommuting by tens of thousands of Federal workers as part what one union official called the Administration's “scorched-earth” strategy to reduce the labor influence in the workplace.

The shift came in response to a shutdown that started late last month of several critical Metro rail stations on the Yellow and Green lines south of Reagan National Airport.

Part of Platform Rehab

What the Washington Post described as the “Metro’s longest-ever segment shutdown” is part of a three-year station-platform rehabilitation program that will require northern Virginia commuters to rely on free shuttles and other alternatives like Bikeshare and buses. 

In advance of the regional transportation shutdown, Federal agencies were advised “to allow more telework and alternative work schedules for their employees during the shutdown.”

On May 20, Office of Personnel Management Acting Director Margaret Weichert wrote in a memo that “workplace flexibilities made available during the project will assist agencies in retaining their workforce during this time period and will provide stewardship of taxpayer dollars by maintaining continuity of operations.”

Federal workforce telecommuting historically drew congressional support under both Republican and Democratic Presidents. It reduced the Capital region’s severe traffic congestion and attendant air pollution. It also promoted a better family life/work balance for the Federal workforce while saving taxpayers money by reducing the need for Federal office space.

On Trump's To-Go List

But that all changed under the Trump Administration, according to David Cann, director of bargaining for the American Federation of Government Employees. He said such “workplace flexibilities” were targeted across agencies after Mr. Trump’s executive orders to deny Federal workers union representation were ruled unconstitutional last October.

While litigation over those executive orders continued, Mr. Cann said the administration tried to accomplish the goal by suspending negotiations and rushing to declare impasses so the Federal Service Impasse Panel could assume control of the negotiating process and “rubber-stamp” management’s contract proposals, which included rolling back telecommuting.

The members of the FSIP serve at the pleasure of the President and do not require Senate confirmation. In May 2017, Mr. Trump fired the entire panel and replaced them with former members who served during the George W. Bush administration or have been affiliated with right-wing and anti-union think tanks like the Goldwater Institute, Americans for Limited Government, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Fairness Center, and the Heritage Foundation.

“They are trying to get rid of it everywhere,” Mr. Cann said of the telecommuting option. “And the part that is crazy about that is that [historically] there have been dozens of initiatives which come from executive orders and some of which come from Federal regulations, which are telling the government and the General Services Administration to limit their [physical] footprint, and there are entire agencies where if they get rid of teleworking, they won’t be able to accommodate the employees that they have.”

Aim to Cut Workforce

He said that the Administration’s ultimate goal was to shrink the Federal workforce, a campaign pledge made by Mr. Trump and a long-held policy objective of the right wing. 

Even as OPM’s leadership signaled its support for telecommuting this summer, the Department of Health and Human Services was attempting to roll back its existing program of telecommuting, according to National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon.

Federal News Radio reported that HHS advised 110 employees of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health that they would be restricted to one day a week of telecommuting regardless of their previous agreements with their managers.

“The changes in telework policy come after the Federal Services Impasse Panel (FSIP) ruled on 22 proposals from both the agency and the union this spring,” reported FNS. “The panel’s decision rewrote much of the existing HHS-NTEU collective bargaining agreement, including an article on HHS employee telework policy.”

Mr. Reardon blasted the move as both “illegal” and “unfortunate, especially for a workforce that has demonstrated that telework is an effective tool to improve productivity and recruit and retain skilled employees.”

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