Wouldn’t you like to have a job where you get paid to slack off, and no matter what, have a powerful authority to back you up, winning battles to preserve your salary, benefits, and your every demand if your boss tries to fire you?
It’s a fact of life for many government workers. A dive into government labor fights at the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) reveals a nasty secret—the great lengths federal unions go to protect government slackers, at your expense.
Cases at the FLRA, a quasi-judicial body that oversees disputes between federal agencies and government unions, show federal labor unions are winning battles that are putting taxpayers, and the government, at risk.
And now one big government insider is calling foul on government union abuses of taxpayers and federal agencies. Patrick Pizzella, one of the three referees at the FLRA adjudicating these fights, is blowing the whistle on federal union abuses in case after case. “One cannot make this stuff up,” Pizzella said.
For example, federal labor unions are winning fights against federal agencies who try to fire their union workers for letting mentally ill military veterans walk out the door of psychiatric units in Veterans Affairs hospitals, or for not catching things like a major rat infestation in a food factory. Instead, union lawyers are getting their members’ jobs, back-pay, and benefits reinstated, all at taxpayer expense.
Federal unions have also battled Defense Dept. agencies that, for example, try to suspend a daycare worker for letting a toddler wander off a military base down the sidewalk toward traffic.
At the same time, federal worker unions have been fighting to unionize federal inspector generals’ offices, the watchdogs who catch waste, fraud and abuse committed by federal workers at agencies like the IRS, the Dept. of Homeland Security, the Dept. of Transportation, or the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
In the second part of our series, we’ll show you how federal unions are fighting to let their members work full-time from home on union business, and not on their work for the government, at places like the VA.
We’ll show you, too, how federal teleworking is on the rise, thanks to the Obama Administration, where a growing number of government workers are working from home, even from their couches. This, as workers at the U.S. Patent Office were found to be surfing on Facebook, shopping online, running errands or doing the laundry, while ostensibly working from home.
And in the final part of our series, we’ll show you how, despite the fact that cyber attacks on the government are on the rise, a federal union recently won a case that stopped Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from immediately blocking workers’ personal email accounts on government computers, like Hotmail or Gmail. Such accounts are often loaded with computer viruses or malware.
Instead, the union is forcing these security agencies to first enter into protracted collective bargaining over the use of personal webmail accounts, putting the government at risk of cyber-attacks at a time when security experts note cyber criminals, terrorists and nation states like China are increasingly trying to break in.
Just last week Russian cyber thieves were blamed for the hack into the IRS, where tax return data for 104,000 individuals was stolen in order to get fraudulent tax refunds, now estimated at $50 million. Hackers broke into the IRS’s Internet service that lets taxpayers access their past tax returns.
Big government is becoming harder to oversee as it increases in size. However, the head of the country’s biggest federal worker union recently threatened retaliation against anyone in Congress who tried to dial back the federal workforce in order to help rein in the ballooning $18.1 trillion federal deficit.
“We are a force to be reckoned with and we are a force that will open up the biggest can of whoop ass on anyone” who votes against the interests of federal unions, J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), recently said, adding, “every time the “fools” in Congress try to hurt the federal workforce we get bigger. We get stronger and we fight harder.” AFGE did not return repeated calls for comment on this story.
The percentage of workers represented by unions in the private sector is now at about 6.6%, a number that has been steadily declining since the seventies, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to estimates that show anywhere from 35.7% to more than half of the federal government is represented by a union.
About 1.2 million federal workers are members of a federal union, says the Government Accountability Office. That’s an estimated 57% membership rate; there are about 80 federal unions. At the same time, it can take anywhere from a little over five months to more than a year to fire federal workers for poor performance, and fired workers can still appeal, consuming another 200 days.
Meantime, the FLRA continues to hear hundreds of cases where federal unions battle attempted firings for government backsliders. Cases dense with an impenetrable fogbank of legalism, where federal unions hire attorneys who earn a bonanza of fees protecting miscreant federal workers and magick away accountability, putting taxpayers, and the government, at risk.
Taxpayers Must Reward Back Pay to VA Worker Who Let Psych Patient Vanish
Somehow, no one at the VA medical facility in Kansas City, Missouri noticed that an unnamed patient in its secure psychiatry unit for acute inpatients had vanished in the spring of 2014. VA workers had left the security door unlocked.
The reason the vets in the unit are kept in a secured, locked environment is due to their treatment for “drugs, [their] hostile nature, and mental problems,” notes the FLRA’s Pizzella in the case file. Pizzella, who served as assistant secretary for administration and management at the Labor Department under President George W. Bush, added: “Alfred Hitchcock would probably have referred to this case as ‘The Case of the Vanishing Patients.’”
Even though a security camera had recorded the patient walking out of the VA psych unit through an unlocked security door, at least three employees still wrote in VA reports that they were seeing the veteran in the unit.
For example, VA worker and AFGE union member Afolabi Olubo not only had marked the patient present, he had reported that he had physically seen the veteran four times, even though the patient had already disappeared. Hours later, that evening, the veteran was discovered at his brother’s house.
Other “patients had escaped” from this VA unit before, and in one case, a VA patient “was gone for two days” before it was discovered he was not in this Kansas City VA facility, the FLRA case file notes.
VA patients are vanishing elsewhere, including, for example, from VA medical facilities in Cleveland, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A reporter for a CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh noted in 2013 after a vet vanished: “Let’s be honest. The patient could only ‘go missing’ if the people who were supposed to be watching him weren’t doing their job.”
FLRA official Pizzella notes in the case file that “one might presume, therefore, that solving the mystery of the unlocked door would be a priority shared by the managers and union officers at AFGE Local 2663 in order to ensure that no other [VA] patients are lost in the future.”
But ensuring that VA workers protect the safety of mentally ill vets wasn’t the union’s priority in this case. When VA managers tried to fire Olubo, the AFGE union fought to cut his penalty to a fourteen-day suspension, then to a one-day suspension.
Then, in September of last year the federal arbitrator on the case, Archie Robbins, ordered the VA to reinstate Olubo and award him back pay. AFGE argued that suspension was inappropriate because Olubo “had just returned from…vacation and mistakenly thought he saw another patient who looked like [the missing] patient.”
Olubo’s negligence was ruled just a “shortcoming,” and the arbitrator even lectured the VA in Kansas City “that it should have used the disciplinary process ‘to inspire [Olubo] to be a better worker in the future,’” Pizzella wrote. Arbitrator Robbins also ordered the VA in Kansas City to not place any evidence of a verbal reprimand “into [Olubo’s] work record or utilize it in any future disciplinary action.”
Pizzella notes that the AFGE union and the arbitrator “treated this case as if losing a patient is no more serious than losing one’s office key,” adding, the VA workers’ “misconduct is inexcusable and must have violated many written and unwritten policies pertaining to the public health and welfare,” (see FLRA case details).
Taxpayers Must Reward Back Pay to USDA Food Inspector Who Didn’t Catch Rat Infestation
A federal food-safety inspector at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service got suspended for “negligently” failing to discover that rats had infested a pasta factory in Bridgeview, Illinois.
However, the AFGE won, his punishment was overturned and his back pay was reinstated. The federal labor review board may reinstate the legal costs for his union attorney as well.
Back in February 2010, Irvin Boesen, a 25-year USDA food inspector, supposedly inspected Vince & Sons Pasta Co. in Bridgeview, Ill. But USDA officials did their own looksee, and found that “the rat infestation in the pasta-production facility was extensive and widespread,” the case file shows.
Somehow Boesen, the USDA inspector, “failed to discover” rat feces in a storage area holding bags of raw flour and rat excrement on the floor around “a bag of flour that was ripped open,” documents indicate. He also “didn’t pay sufficient attention” to reports from the pest control company hired by the plant, which noted four rats were trapped inside the factory that month
Because of the rat infestation, the government shut down the pasta facility “for more than a week,” due to the “serious health and safety issue” in the plant, putting employees temporarily out of work, documents show. The USDA also suspended the inspector for just five days without pay, “on the lenient side,” the USDA admitted, taking into account his long service, the case file shows.
But the AFGE union lawyer on the case fought back, arguing the USDA “failed to apply progressive discipline,” and that Boesen’s five-day suspension was “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious, punitive and an abuse of discretion.”
The AFGE won. The federal arbitrator, Robert D. Steinberg, set aside the USDA’s decision as unwarranted. He ruled the worker was merely negligent rather than willful or reckless, emphasizing Boesen was a long-term employee with a satisfactory performance record. So, the inspector got his back pay (he made more than $67,500 yearly) and lost benefits were reinstated, with just a slap on the wrist.
The USDA inspector “suffered no significant consequence, even though his inexcusable negligence could have affected the health of hundreds, if not thousands, of consumers,” FLRA official Pizzella wrote, all contrary to the mission of the USDA, which “is to ensure that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe.”
Pizzella noted “the unavoidable conclusion”: That the USDA inspector “created the potential for a serious health crisis.”
Union Says Suspension Excessive for Federal Daycare Worker Who Let Toddler Wander Off
Video footage revealed a federal daycare worker at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida was so busy talking, she let a toddler walk off a gated playground in February 2014 toward traffic. But the AFGE argued her five-day suspension for negligence was “excessive,” despite the video proof.
Specifically, the toddler, under the care of the federal worker (both unnamed), walked out of the playground through an unclosed gate, and proceeded down the sidewalk toward traffic while the daycare worker, an AFGE union member, talked to a parent. “Video footage of the incident indicated that the incident would not have happened if the grievant or her coworker had monitored the playground,” the case file reads.
Even though it admitted the video footage was “credible,” AFGE argued the Air Force “failed to prove” the daycare worker’s misconduct since “the playground gate was broken,” blaming it on the “responsibility” of the day-care center director.
However, the Air Force’s table of penalties “permits firing even for a first offense of this nature,” notable in this case since this lapse could have created “serious injury” to the toddler.” This time, the union lost, and the worker was suspended.