Workforce

A Biden-Harris 'reset’ for feds

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Federal employee unions and management associations are looking for the incoming administration to quickly repeal multiple Trump-era workforce policies via executive order.

"We're very optimistic," said Steve Lenkart, the executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), a union representing federal employees. "We're hoping to hit the reset button."

The majority of the priorities laid out by federal employee groups are direct reactions to policies implemented during the Trump administration. Nine out of the 10 concerns laid out in a letter to the Biden campaign from NFFE and over 15 other federal employee groups target policies created under the Trump administration, Lenkart said.

Specifically, several employee groups are looking for president-elect Joe Biden and incoming vice president Kamala Harris to reverse of Trump-administration policies regarding diversity training, federal employee unions and the civil service.

The Biden administration appears ready to do just that. The Biden transition website notes a commitment to "providing public service and federal government workers with bargaining rights."

In a candidate questionnaire published in the October issue of National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association's magazine, Biden also pledged to safeguard due process rights for federal employees.

"On my first day in office, I will restore federal employees' rights to organize and bargain collectively, restore their right to official time, and direct agencies to bargain with federal employee unions over non-mandatory subjects of bargaining," he wrote.

Diversity Training

Many are expecting that the Biden administration will rescind an executive order purging what the administration calls "divisive" concepts from diversity, equity and inclusion training for the federal workforce, federal contractors and grants recipients.

The reversal of that executive order is a high priority, said Jacque Simon, the public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a federal employee union.

Racial equity is one of the four pillars that the president-elect's transition website lists as imperative to the new administration, along with COVID-19, economic recovery and climate change. The new administration will address "discrimination and harassment in the workforce" and promote diversity and accountability in leadership positions across federal agencies, according to the transition website.

Also in the area of diversity and racial equity, the Biden team has made commitments to achieving equity in "management, training and higher education opportunities" and to making a "historic commitment to equalizing federal procurement."

The reversal of a series of executive orders issued by President Trump in 2018 is also a high priority for many federal employee groups.

The three orders centered on collective bargaining negotiations, the number of work hours that union members can spend on official time, standards for grievance negotiations and turnaround plans to improve employee performance.

AFGE is looking for the Biden administration to rescind these early in the new term, "ideally in the first five minutes," Simon said.

The letter from NFFE and the other federal employee groups also requested that the new administration rescind those executive orders on day one.

The National Treasury Employee Association has also pointed to the withdrawal of those orders. NTEU National President Tony Reardon said that "canceling them will put the federal government back on a path toward a more collaborative relationship between agencies and their employees."

However, simply repealing the orders doesn't automatically roll back the Trump administration's efforts.

"If you just rescind those executive orders, it doesn't automatically eliminate the damage that Trump did over the last four years to the federal workforce," Simon said.

Collective bargaining agreements and contracts that were renegotiated during the Trump administration under various new rules won't be automatically undone once the executive orders the preceded them are rescinded, she said.

NFFE is calling for the reversal of the executive orders to include new instructions that agreements signed since the beginning of 2017 be re-opened if either party feels that harm was done, Lenkart said.

Reardon shared the concern that fully reversing the impact of these executive orders would take additional work, pointing to the negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement at the Department of Health and Human Services, which involved contract talk breakdowns, protests, and litigation from NTEU.

Moreover, the letter from NFFE and other federal employee groups included the request that agencies should allow unions to bypass the Federal Service Impasses Panel and use binding interest arbitration instead. They also asked for the new administration to remove current members of the panel and leave it empty until new members can be appointed.

Schedule F

Simon and others are also hoping that the Biden administration will rescind the executive order that created a new category of at-will federal employees, Schedule F.

"We urge swift action by a Biden administration to rescind Executive Order 13957 creating a new Schedule F category of federal positions exempt from competitive hiring rules and due process protections, and reverse any actions taken pursuant to the order to preserve a merit-based civil service," said Jessica Klement, the vice president of policy and programs at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE).

For some, the upcoming administration change represents not only a chance to pivot direction on federal workforce issues from a Trump administration to a Biden administration, but also an opportunity to address longstanding problems in the areas of government management.

Endemic problems with unresponsiveness, skills gaps and other human resources hurdles remain, Jason Briefel, director of policy and outreach at the Senior Executives Association, said. He expects the incoming administration to take some kind of action against Schedule F, but even then, he thinks the long-standing need for reform will linger and will need to be addressed by Congress in addition to the executive branch.

"It's not enough to just throw [Schedule F] out," he said. "They're going to have to do civil service reform."

The Senior Executives Association has also called for the new administration to repair the talent pipeline into the federal government and cultivate diversity in top positions. T

There are some things the Biden administration can do specifically at the beginning of its term, said Briefel, including identifying career officials to serve in acting leadership and appointed roles; eliminating unnecessary political appointments; and having the Office of Personnel Management publish information about administration appointments.

Re-staffing and filling of positions

Federal employee associations are also making requests about how the president-elect fills positions.

NARFE and SEA are both calling on the administration to elevate the director of the Office of Personnel Management to cabinet level.

Broadly, NARFE is hoping that the president-elect will make federal human capital management a top priority, Klement said.

AFGE is hoping that the administration will bring the Department of Veterans Affairs and Bureau of Prisons to full staffing, Simon said.

In a letter from SEA interim President Robert Corsi, Jr. to Biden campaign, Corsi also called for the administration to restore a quorum at the Merit Systems Protection Board, which has been unable to adjudicate appeals

NFFE's list of immediate requests for the new administration includes an ask for Labor-Management Partnership Forums to be reinstated, and for the Biden administration to prevent a majority of Republican nominees on the Federal Relations Authority by re-confirming Democrat-appointed Ernest DuBester and removing Republican-appointed member James Abbott.

Biden wrote in the NARFE questionnaire that he would prioritize eliminating vacancies in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Pay and retirement

In terms of retirement issues, NFFE and the other employee groups asked in their letter that there be an executive order to permit duty-related disabled workers in a variety of positions to receive retirement benefits equal to what they would have received if they had not been disabled.

On the salary front, the president-elect promised "consistent and regular pay increases necessary to ensure federal salaries remain competitive" in the candidate questionnaire.

NARFE is hoping that the Biden administration will repeal or reform the Windfall Elimination Provision and government pension offset, Klement said. Biden wrote in the questionnaire that he would eliminate "penalties" like the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision, and strengthen the Thrift Savings Plan.

NARFE is also hoping that the administration will change Social Security cost-of-living calculations, which also apply to the pension benefits received by federal employees. The president-elect has said that he would be in favor of using the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly for cost-of-living adjustment.

The Biden transition team did not return requests for comment.

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