Statement by Paul Barnes,
Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources,
Social Security Administration
before the House Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Social Security
July 24, 1998
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
I wish to thank the Chairman and the members of the Subcommittee for inviting me to discuss the issue of union activities and the conduct of union business on official time at the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Since President Clinton issued Executive Order 12871 on October 1, 1993, a new spirit of cooperation has emerged between SSA and its union partners that has brought real gains for this Agency and for the millions of Americans that we serve every day. Although our relationship is still maturing, partnership efforts between labor and management have had a very positive impact on our ability to serve the American public. Today I would like to discuss SSA's efforts in forging effective relation ships with its union partners; how partnership activities have made significant contributions to many of the successes we have achieved in enhancing customer service; and why SSA believes that many of the conclusions drawn by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in its recent three reports reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of partnership and the relationship of activities arising out of partnership to the business of SSA.
History of Official Time and Partnership
In 1962, President Kennedy issued an executive order that established a framework for Federal agencies to bargain with unions over working conditions and personnel practices. This executive order, along with a series of subsequent executive orders, was codified in the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978, which established official time as an integral part of Federal labor-management relations and the Federal sector collective bargaining process.
During the Reagan Administration, the first consolidated SSA-AFGE collective bargaining agreement to recognize agency payment of official union time from both the trust funds and general revenues was signed by then-SSA Commissioner John A. Svahn on Jun 11, 1982.
SSA employees who serve as representatives of the unions use what is referred to as "official time" when performing union representational activities. Under the law governing union activities, the Labor-Management Relations Statute, (which was part of the CSRA), official time is defined as time employees spend acting as union representatives which they would otherwise spend in duty status and for which an agency pays the employees as if they were performing their normal duties.
Official time granted to union representatives to engage in activitie s on behalf of the union is deemed to be Agency work. SSA, like other Federal agencies and many firms in the private sector such as Ford, Chrysler, Inland Steer and Armco Steel, pays for approved time spent by its employees on official time.
The costs associated with union activities and the use of official time are an administrative expense charged to the Agency. In accordance with Public Law 105-78, the trust funds are reimbursed from general tax revenues for any expenditures made for official time and for facilities and support services for labor organizations.
Tracking Official Time Usage
Tracking the use of official time is important to both SSA management and the unions. SSA recognizes past problems in accurately tracking and managing official time and has taken decisive steps to improve the tracking of official time usage.
SSA has continually worked with its components and regions to collect accurate up-to-date listings of union representatives on a quarterly basis. These lists also show the percentage of official time used by each person.
We work diligently to ensure that the lists accurately reflect union representatives and the amounts of time used. The Office of Labor-Management and Employer Relations (OLMER) is responsible for maintaining a list and for making changes based on information provided by the unions or reported by labor relations staff in the regions.
In addition, in February 1998, SSA implemented the new automated Official Union Time Tracking System (OUTTS). OUITS is an automated system that tracks use of official time and official bank time balances at the union representative level. It will enable SSA to monitor time spent on union activities by individual union representatives and ensure that total time spent on certain activities is not excessive.
Users will be able to query the system for account balances and will be able to reallocate hours among representatives. The system will alert users when certain preset conditions arise; e.g., when a union representative is within 20 percent of exhausting his or her allocation of official time. OUTTS will also identify active and inactive union representatives.
In future releases, OUTTS will enable SSA to make customized queries from the system. For example, an upcoming release will enable SSA to conduct an internal check on official time recording activities by differentiating between non-reporting field offices and reporting field offices. In a different OUTTS release to follow, a menu of administrative reports will be available. This menu will allow users to limit reports to specified regions or union locals.
The OUTTS system applies only to the tracking of official time of union representatives in SSA's field components. This covers 75 percent of the union representatives in the Agency. For components other than field offices, SSA is considering alternative methods for ensuring accurate reporting. For example, a recent automation effort undertaken by OLMER has provided the capability for summarizing official time information on spreadsheets. Once finalized, this process should prevent duplication andminimize mathematical errors.
Handling Requests for Official Time
The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute provides that any employee representing a labor organization "shall" be granted offi cial time for negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement, including any impasse proceedings . The statute also provides that, except for certain specifically restricted activities, offic ial time must be granted in any amount the union and management agree to be necessary, reasonable, and in the public interest. However, managers can, and do, request postponement of the use of official time due to workload considerations.
The case law establishes the fundamental criteria for management and labor in substantiating requests for official time. SSA is in full compliance with both the statute and case law.
The law does prohibit the granting of official time for union activities involving internal union business, such as soliciting membership, conducting elections of union officials, and collecting dues. Thus, SSA does not pay for union expenses related to these activities.
In addition, SSA and the unions have negotiated collective bargaining agreements which set guidelines for the amount of official time allowable for management-in itiated and union-initiated activities. Union officials and SSA must agree on the amount of official time and the number of union representatives which are allowed for labor-management relations. These agreements are accomplished through mutual agreement or negotiations. If the parties disagree, the matter may ultimately be resolved by third parties such as arbitrators, the Federal Service Impasse panel (FSIP), the FLRA, or the courts. Thus, either the parties mutually agree on the number of full-time representatives or a third party will make the final decision. In fact, many issues such as the amount of official time a union representative may use, the number of full-time union representatives, and access to agency facilities have often been decided by third parties.
Yet at the same time, as the Commissioner reported to the House Committee on Appropriations on January 27, 1998, in FY 1997 there was a 19 percent decrease in the number of hours of official time that employees spent on union activities as compared with FY 1996. This decrease in reported official time hours is attributable to several factors, including reduced formal bargaining in some components, a decrease in the number of full-time representatives, and a continuing emphasis on partnership activities that have been instrumental in reducing official time usage by $2.3 million.
Importance of Partnership at SSA
Let me now discuss the importance of the partnership between SSA and the unions which represent its employees. One of SSA's three fundamental goals set forth in our Agency Strategic Plan is to create an environment that ensures a highly skilled, motivated workforce dedicated to meeting the challenges of SSA's public service mission. We look on our partnership with the unions as an important means of advancing that goal. By working with the unions, we involve our employees in discussions about things that need to be done and how we will do them.
The national performance review (NPR) recommended the formation of "labormanagement partnerships for success" across government. In October 1993, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12871, which created the national partnership Council, a team of senior union, management, and neutral leaders in support of the NPR's goal of encouraging labor-management cooperation and partnership throughout the federal government. SSA and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 50,000 SSA employees, signed an agreement on June 21, 1994, for the purpose of implementing and maintaining such a cooperative working relationship between labor and management in order to identify and solve problems, and to improve the day-to-day operations of SSA, especially those affecting service to the public. In this respect, it is in SSA's best interest to support the union's continued participation by fundin~ certain activities, since the ultimate success of our efforts to improve our operations rests with the employees who put them into practice every business day.
In the past, official time has traditionally been used in litigious, adversarial, costly third party matters such as arbitrations, and unfair labor practice complaints . Under our partnership agreement, our relationship with the union has shifted away from litigation to more joint activities, such as involving union representatives in the decision making process to help craft solutions to better serve our customers and creating labor-management partnership councils and committees at the national and local levels of SSA, includ ing health and safety and security committees. This shift has made SSA a better agency and a better provider of services to the American public.
To address SSA issues at the national level, SSA formed its own National Partnership Council which meets on the first Tuesday of each month. Also, Partnership Councils have been fanned by many components at the Deputy Commissioner level in SSA's Central Office and in many of SSA's Regional Offices.
The Partnership Councils charter workgroups and committees to handle special projects or long term initiatives. Since the implementation of the partnership agreement, SSA management and the union have participated in over 1,537 partnership projects at the national, regional, and local levels. These partnership projects have been used for a variety of purposes, primarily involving customer service initiatives and operational efficiencies, labor-management relations, and quality of work life.
Earlier this year SSA was the first Federal agency to conduct and complete a thorough evaluation of partnership at the national level. This evaluation detailed numerous benefits of partnership within SSA. For example:
In the area of customer service, partnership has facilitated numerous improvements in customer service, several of which directly impact upon the 800-number services. Partnership also helped to facilitate SSA's customer service improvement initiatives such as "one-stop shopping".
In the area of productivity and efficiency, partnership facilitated the disability redesign process, work sharing from one component to another, and efforts to reduce the backlogs in the office of Hearings and Appeals. Partnership also was involved in developing and implementing recommendations that improved SSA's use of management information.
In the area of employee empowerment, partnership replaced traditional management-controlled processes with processes involving the direct participation of employees, involving them as key stakeholders in workplace issues which affect them profoundly.
In the area of work life , partnership has been found to enhance the work environment by helping to create developmental and growth opportunities for employees which had not previously exis ted. The Benefit Authorizer Intern program in the Kansas City Region is an example of job growth, opportunities, and hope for career advancement.
In the fiscal area, partnership activities have helped SSA save money and avoid expenditures as compared to traditional labor-management processes. Significant savings have resulted from reduced litigation costs, reduced relocation and renovation costs, re-missioning of employees and the upgrade of computer systems including the installation of Intelligent Work Station/Local Area Network equipment.
In the area of labor relations, partnership has replaced the traditional adversarial role with an emphasis on cooperation. Disputes have been settled effectively and at a lower cost through the utilization of Interest-Based Bargaining.
OIG Reports on Partnership
Now, let me discuss the three reports recently issued by SSA's Office of the Inspector general (OIG) relating to labor-management issues at SSA. SSA respects the OIG's views expressed in the reports but, quite frankly, I believe that many of the conclusions drawn by the OIG in these reports reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of partnership and the relationship of activities arising out of partnership to the business of SSA.
The OIG's conclusions and recommendations reflect a rigid concept of partnership activities, such as meetings and training. One of SSA's goals is to deliver customer responsive, world-class service, and our relationship with the unions is an important means of advancing that goal. Issues that would have been previously dealt with in confrontational settings, such as grievances and unfair labor practices, can now be addressed by workgroups or during the normal course of business in an atmosphere of cooperation engendered by partnership. The report concluded that projects under interest-based bargaining should not have been included in the partnership activities inventory. However, the Executive Order itself specifies that agencies should train participants in interest-based bargaining as part of their implementation of Partnership.
In its report on official time, the OIG attempted to determine whether official time usage at SSA was in compliance with laws, regulations, and collective bargaining agreements, and whether SSA produces reliable information to determine the costs of official time. However, the report took into account only SSA's past manual official time collection system -without recognizing the new automated QUITS system which will eliminate the errors that OIG identified in the manual system. SSA has implemented actions to deal with some of the issues raised in the QIG report prior to its investigation such as conducting a pilot on the OUTTS tracking system. SSA has been proactive in ensuring that it captures official time, as well as partnership time, in an accurate and timely fashion. In addition, the report did not acknowledge the impact of decisions made by arbitrators and the FLRA. This case law defines the parameters under which SSA must operate.
The OIG's report on Council 220 Union Representative and manager observation on the Use of Management of Official Time at SSA is a collection of observations and is not an audit report. The survey represents an unscientific sample of opinions and perceptions, and interpretations of survey data, with no supporting evidence to verify any information given in the responses. Thus, the survey can only be of limited value in actually assessing the effectiveness of official time management at SSA.
Nevertheless, the perceptions and opinions on union time are of value. Responses from small offices indicate that the managers and union representative work closely to foster trusting relationships. Survey responses show overwhelmingly that managers knew that there was an office where they could consult on official time issues, and nearly all of the managers described the assistance they had received as accurate, timely, and helpful. Information presented in the report show that there is communication and a common understanding of official time in Council 220 offices, providing the basis for a foundation for continuing, effective labor-management relationships.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, let me state that SSA is committed to a new spirit of cooperation between management and its union partners to bring about real gains for SSA and for the millions of Americans that SSA serves every day. I can assure you that SSA's policies and practices regarding the use of official time fully comply with applicable labor laws.
SSA has been proactive in forging effective relationships with its union partners and was the first federal agency to conduct an evaluation of partnership at the national level. Partnership activities at SSA have greatly contributed to many of the successes we have achieved in enhancing customer service, such as improvements in our national, toll-free 800 number service. I believe that many of the conclusions drawn by the OIG reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of partnership and the relationship of activities arising out of partnership to the business of SSA. Although our partnership is still maturing, and we expect further progress in the future, partnership efforts between labor and management have been nothing less than a success story at SSA.
SSA is committed to design, implement, and maintain within SSA a constructive working relationship between labor and management. Our emphasis is on developing an organizational culture in which labor-management relations are based on trust, mutual respect, common goals, and shared accountability. While we realize this will take time, we must take the long-term view and make these investments now that are vital to ensure future success. The American people deserve no less.