Biden urged to rebuild the relationship with federal workers

“The hostility and disrespect the outgoing administration has shown federal employees these last four years is truly unconscionable,” NTEU President Tony Reardon said Tuesday. “I hope for the sake of our democracy that we don’t ever again see this level of animosity.”

NTEU, the government’s second-largest union, representing 150,000 workers in 33 agencies, issued recommendations for the incoming Biden administration. They call for a broad range of actions “to repair the damage and . . . put the government back on the path of healthy labor management relations.”

On Monday, the academy’s working group released a report on “Modernizing and Reinvigorating the Public Workforce” because “the federal government faces unprecedented workforce challenges that put agency missions — including national and homeland security — at risk.” Of the many problems the government faces, NAPA said none “can be fixed without first fixing the government’s people systems. The federal government will not be able to serve the people unless it has the people it needs for the work to be done.”

The working group, which includes academics and former government officials, was led by Jeffrey Neal, NAPA board chairman and formerly the chief personnel officer in two federal agencies. It issued a proposed executive order that would make the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) director a Cabinet officer.

With instability in the agency’s top slot, OPM has experienced a significant drop in influence during a Trump administration that imposed federal policies by Trump fiat. Making the chief people person a Cabinet officer would greatly enhance the influence of an agency that is little known to the public, even as it oversees programs affecting 2.1 million federal employees across the government and millions more covered by employer-provided health insurance and other programs.

Reardon didn’t endorse or oppose the Cabinet membership recommendation, but said it is important for the OPM director to be involved in Cabinet-level discussions. Pointing to four OPM leaders in four years, NTEU said the agency’s “persistent change in leadership has left OPM rudderless.”

NTEU and the NAPA working group urged Biden to resume the labor-management forums that facilitated workplace relations under the Clinton and Obama administrations. NTEU said the formalized collaboration “legitimized the institutional role of unions in achieving agency missions, expanded the scope of collective bargaining, and mandated union involvement in pre-decisional agency operations” — actions the Trump administration vigorously rejected.

Both groups called on Biden to rescind the most visible and harmful of Trump’s actions — five executive orders upsetting federal workplace norms. Biden has said he would overturn three May 2018 orders that undermined federal labor organizations and made it easier to fire feds. The other two would create a new category of federal employees exempt from civil service workplace protections, making them more vulnerable to political retribution, and prohibit crucial elements of diversity and inclusion training in federal agencies.

The NAPA report stressed the need for hiring changes in the federal government by expanding the use of “streamlined hiring authorities” outside the regular competitive hiring process. It also called for a reduction in security clearance requirements, saying they have developed into “one of the worst bottlenecks” for applicants for government and contractor positions.

NAPA’s experts also called for civil service restructuring, noting the 71-year-old job classification system was developed for a workplace dominated by “clerks who processed mountains of paper.” Reardon did not take a position on the working group’s recommendation to reduce the number of federal job classifications by at least 50 percent, but union leaders generally have opposed a total revamping of the government’s General Schedule, or GS, employment classification system that they feel has served employees well.

NTEU also wants Biden to support an annual 5 percent increase in staffing at the Internal Revenue Service, which would result in 4,000 positions per year for four years and increased staffing at Customs and Border Protection, both agencies where the union represents employees.

When the NTEU endorsed Biden, Reardon said the president-elect “is exactly who federal employees need in the White House.” Reardon did not mention the three-year freeze on basic federal pay rates under the Obama administration when Biden was vice president. The endorsement also ignored hits to federal retirement under President Barack Obama that required new feds to pay more toward retirement benefits. During the campaign, Biden promised regular pay raises for federal employees and protection against cuts to employee benefits.

The Obama administration hits have not been forgotten, but they also are not comparable to Trump’s severe actions.

As a result of those actions, the federal workforce is “in many cases, understaffed, under-resourced and unsupported by agency leaders who are hostile to their mission,” NTEU said. “We see a new administration as an opportunity to collaborate on repairing the missions and restoring the executive branch agencies to the standards that the American people deserve and expect.”

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