Since taking office, the Biden administration has championed workers’ voice, better working conditions, and telework expansion, yet the agency that’s tasked with promoting all these policies are not exactly implementing them for its own workforce.
OPM, for example, has urged other agencies to adopt telework expansion as a tool to recruit and retain employees, but it’s not following its own advice. In fact, the agency violated the law and told employees to return to the office without addressing safety concerns raised by AFGE Local 32, which represents OPM workers.
Despite being actively engaged in negotiations over continued expanded telework and remote work during the transition back to work, the agency unilaterally returned the employees back to their pre-pandemic schedules over the summer. OPM has also largely ignored Local 32’s proposals as the agency issued guidance from the Task Force on COVID-19 Guidance.
The local has filed two unfair labor practice charges against OPM on the issue. Many OPM employees feel OPM is not living up to its statements about being pro-worker and pro-union.
During the pandemic, the entire OPM workforce worked remotely and successfully accomplished its mission. OPM has touted benefits of telework expansion for both the agency and employees after the pandemic, but the agency is not doing what it preaches.
“For Retirement Services, for example, they claim to have expanded telework for employees, but in fact they only gave telework to those few who never had it. Other employees were forced to keep the same schedules they had before the pandemic,” said Local 32 President Marlo Bryant-Cunningham said. “This is important because we are dealing with many instances of a mental health crisis from those who returned to work with no increase in telework. Morale has been low, and people are resigning.”
One employee has just resigned after OPM continued to deny her workplace flexibilities and additional telework to take care of COVID-related childcare responsibilities.
Due to the pandemic, many children experienced difficulties progressing in their learning. In the case of this employee’s seven-year-old daughter, she was at the point where she was not reading and her mom naturally wanted her daughter to be able to catch up. The school organized summer school for the kids from 8 to noon, and the employee, who’s also a single mother, requested flexibilities so that she could make sure her daughter got on the school bus safely -- and that the bus came, which it sometimes didn’t due to staffing shortages at the school.
But the employee’s supervisor at OPM denied her request and told her to use annual leave and sick leave to get her child to summer school. But when she did, the same supervisor gave her leave counseling two months later saying she was abusing her leave. OPM said it would allow flexibilities for COVID-related family responsibilities, but this didn’t happen. Forced to make a choice between her work and her daughter’s education, the employee resigned from her job.
“It was a lot of stress, anxiety, depression. I felt like my back was against the wall,” said the employee. “Is this how you treat an employee who’s been with your organization for 10 years?”
As the employee’s job was to process retirement claims, OPM will now have to hire someone to do her job, wasting time and taxpayer’s money with hiring and training that could take months. The employee said initial training took 9 months when she first came on board. With COVID, they shrank it, leaving employees not fully equipped to handle cases.
Morale at OPM has taken a nosedive due to the agency’s refusal to accommodate employees with special needs. In the most recent employee satisfaction survey, OPM ranked almost last – 18 out of 21 medium-size agencies – on its COVID return-to-office policy.
Bryant-Cunningham said another employee was escorted out of the building as she went into a mental crisis after a supervisor triggered her known PTSD.
“OPM Retirement Services was not prepared to return employees back to a healthy and safe environment, and employees are mentally breaking down,” she added.
Laundry list of problems
Telework is not the only issue at OPM. Some of the anti-worker Trump-era policies (and people) are still in place today. A few examples:
- OPM has refused to meet with the local to discuss and resolve violations amicably, inexpensively, and swiftly. The local and employees who reported violations are told to go through other channels such as grievances and equal employment opportunity complaints.
- Labor Management Transformation meetings stopped and have not restarted. These meetings provided budgetary updates and agency plans on things like reorganization, hiring, new groups, etc.
- Program office labor-management forums were terminated and to date not all program offices have a forum.
- OPM and the local just started renegotiating the bargaining agreement, and the agency has changed most of the union’s interactions with management to be interactions with OPM HR, hurting partnership and collaboration with the union. The people the local has to deal with are HR folks hired during the last administration carrying out duties in the same form and fashion of the last administration. OPM HR has created roadblocks between management and the union, intentionally causing communication gaps and a contested relationship between the two parties.