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By Sam Pearson
Employees of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board were subject to an “abusive, toxic and hostile” work culture, according to a congressional committee’s report, and as a result, companies were waiting longer and longer for the agency’s investigations to conclude.
Congress’ findings that the CSB was mismanaged led to the resignation of former CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso in 2015, and while surveys have shown morale increasing at CSB since then, recent personnel actions threaten to complicate the picture.
In several personnel issues in recent months—accusations that the board’s leadership pressured staff to report higher morale on a federal survey and the proposed reclassification of some investigator positions—employees at the CSB have also not had a union representative to help resolve disputes.
The board’s employees haven’t formed a union, unlike other federal workers at agencies that CSB staff interact with, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and National Transportation Safety Board. The board, however, is scheduled to discuss the personnel issues at its next public meeting Nov. 14.
Unions represent hundreds of thousands of federal employees, but their presence is few and far between at agencies with fewer than 100 employees, such as CSB, with its 41 employees. Only four small agencies have unions, Sandy Day, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), told Bloomberg Environment.
Union membership overall among government workers is growing in the first year of the Trump administration. In a statement to Bloomberg Environment, Jacque Simon, policy director of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union has added more than 7,500 members in the past year. And a Government Executive report described a spike last year after the election.
“Employees are free to unionize and management has no opinion on it,” CSB spokeswoman Hillary Cohen said in a statement to Bloomberg Environment that. “It is an employee-led decision.”
How these issues are resolved, and how employee views are considered, could affect companies in the refining, chemical production and manufacturing sectors if it changes how the board produces reports or what the reports contain, or makes the board take longer to complete them.
The most recent personnel dispute came to light at a public meeting Oct. 16, when Sutherland took the unusual step of raising what had been an internal issue.
Sutherland said in 2014, before she was confirmed to lead CSB, OPM evaluated the agency’s adherence to federal hiring practices and management of human resources programs and systems. Sutherland said she later commissioned a third-party audit, completed in 2016.
The report found, among other things, that board staff serving as “attorney-investigators” may have been hired improperly and the positions may not meet the government’s requirements for professional legal work. Attorney-investigators perform a combination of investigative and legal work.
When an internal review team could not agree what to do, Sutherland said the agency asked OPM for its views and was told the four attorney-investigators, hired in 2012 and 2014, were performing duties that ran counter to federal rules for employing attorneys. She said the board had taken no action yet in regard to the employees.
At least one CSB employee also raised concerns the agency pressured workers to rate it higher in the annual viewpoint survey. While board employee satisfaction has increased since Sutherland took over in August 2015, Sutherland has said the agency is still trying to fix what she described as management failures.
A report in Government Executive last month said an employee filed an anonymous complaint with the inspector general claiming board leadership told staff higher survey results were needed to stave off the Trump administration’s budget proposal to close the agency.
Sutherland said, according to the report, the agency’s leadership hadn’t intended to influence the survey results. The board is slated to discuss “important financial and organizational matters” as well as the viewpoint survey results at its next public meeting Nov. 14, according to a notice in the Federal Register.
It’s not that no one has tried to set up a union at CSB, but organizing never worked out, Jordan Barab, who served as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s deputy director from 2009 to 2017, said.
Barab, who worked at the CSB from 2002 to 2007, told Bloomberg Environment he tried to form a union to address disputes over overtime and compensatory time but the effort stalled when staff became preoccupied with responding to the 2005 BP PLC explosion in Texas City, Texas, that killed 15 workers.
“Half the staff went out to Texas for months, and we basically lost all the momentum for any kind of organizing campaign there,” Barab said.
While Barab wasn’t involved in recent personnel issues at the CSB, he said a union could have benefits for the staff, and not just when employees are unhappy with workplace policies. In dealing with workplace disputes, the board’s staff has taken complaints to both the EPA’s inspector general and the House Oversight Committee, in lieu of representation, Barab said.
Barab said IG investigations are less desirable because they can stray into unrelated issues, while congressional involvement brings political concerns into play—something he said union involvement avoids.
Some news reports in the past year have accused CSB of excessive ties to labor unions. But holding off because of fears of conflict of interest was “not really a reason,” Barab said, since unionized inspectors from other federal agencies already perform these roles.
Still, major labor unions may not actively seek to organize a local chapter at a tiny agency like CSB because the low number of staff there is less likely to offset the initial costs, Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents public-sector workers in workplace disputes, said in an email to Bloomberg Environment.
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