OPM's shift in security posture raises labor law questions
- By Zach Noble
- Jul 15, 2015
On July 2, employees at the Office of Personnel Management came into work and made a discovery: They'd been blocked from accessing Facebook, Gmail and a host of other sites.
In trying to beef up its cybersecurity posture after serious data breaches, OPM had cut off their access -- and possibly violated the established rights of its union employees.
"We were in essence locked out, shut out," American Federation of Government Employees Local 32 President Charlretta McNeill told FCW.
Some 1,000 employees were affected, she said.
McNeill said the union was given no prior warning about the shutoff – which she said extended so far as to prevent remote employees from accessing their work emails – and that OPM presented no opportunity for collective bargaining before making the move.
Multiple sources familiar with labor law told FCW that a 2014 Federal Labor Relations Authority ruling obligates agencies to offer a collective bargaining opportunity before shutting off work access to personal email.
In the 2014 decision, FLRA sided with the AFGE over the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE had blocked its employees from accessing personal emails on work computers in 2011, citing security concerns, but the FLRA determined the agency couldn't unilaterally kill access.
McNeill said the OPM situation is no different.
"They tried to justify it saying, 'Oh well, it's because of the breach,'" McNeill said. "We know that the breach didn't occur because of Facebook."
When FCW reached out to OPM last week asking about the decision to cut off employees' access to multiple personal communication tools, spokesman Sam Schumach replied with a statement that did not directly address the bargaining issue.
"As is the case throughout the federal government, agencies monitor the use of work computers and other devices," Schumach wrote. "Out of caution, and in light of the recent breaches, OPM has recently tightened restrictions on Internet access using web security technology."
He did not respond to multiple follow-up emails over the course of a week asking for clarification about bargaining.
"Our rights will be restored," McNeill said, noting that AFGE President David Cox is aware of the situation and "incensed" at OPM's actions.
AFGE is planning legal action to secure the bargaining opportunity that McNeill said OPM should have offered in the first place.
Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.
Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.
Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.
Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.