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Minutes of September 21, 2011 Forum meeting

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On September 21, 2011, the Department of Commerce Labor-Management Forum met in Room 4830, Herbert C. Hoover Building. The meeting started at 1:30 PM and concluded at 4:30 PM.

Co-Chair Opening Remarks

Scott Quehl, CFO and Assistant Secretary of Administration and Dan Sobien, President of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, welcomed the members, and introduced two new members of the Labor Management Forum: Missy Owens, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Secretary, who is replacing Rick Siger, and Ted Johnson, Chief Financial Officer for the Bureau of the Census, who is replacing Tyra Smith Dent. Ted Johnson was not in attendance.

Approval of the Minutes of the Last Meeting

Mr. Quehl moved to approve the meeting minutes from the June 15, 2011 meeting. The minutes were approved.

Commerce Updates

1. American Jobs Act

Matthew McGuire, Director of the Office of Business Liaison, provided the Forum members with highlights of the American Jobs Act, a package sent to Congress earlier this month by President Obama. He stated that the purpose of the Act is to create more jobs, it is supported by both Democrats and Republicans, and that President Obama is urging that Congress pass the Act right away.

He provided the Forum with highlights of the Act:

• First, it provides a tax cut for small businesses, not big corporations, to help them hire and expand now, and provides an additional tax cut to any business that hires or increases wages.

• Second, it puts more people back to work, including up to 280,000 teachers laid off by state-budget cuts, first responders and veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and construction workers repairing crumbling bridges, roads and more than 35,000 public schools, with projects chosen by need and impact, not earmarks and politics. And, it expands job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of low-income youth and adults through a new Pathways Back to Work Fund that supports summer and year round jobs for youth; innovative new job training programs to connect low-income workers to jobs quickly; and successful programs to encourage employers to bring on disadvantaged workers.

• Third, it helps out-of-work Americans by extending unemployment benefits to help them support their families while looking for work and reforming the system with training programs that build real skills, connect to real jobs and help the long-term unemployed. It bans employers from discriminating against the unemployed when hiring, and provides a new tax credit to employers hiring workers who have been out of a job for over 6 months.

• Fourth, it puts more money in the pockets of working and middle class Americans by: 1) cutting in half the payroll tax that comes out of every worker's paycheck, saving families an average of $1,500 a year, and 2) taking executive action to remove the barriers that exist in the current federal refinancing program (HARP) to help more Americans refinance their mortgages at historically low rates, save money and stay in their homes.

Mr. McGuire also stressed that the American Jobs Act is fully paid for and will not add a dime to the deficit. He stated that it will include specific offsets that will, in combination, more than fully pay for the cost of the Jobs Act. He gave several specific examples, including:

• Reducing the value of tax expenditures for households over $250,000 and individuals over $200,000.

• Eliminating subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

• Eliminating the carried interest loophole.

• Closing the corporate jet loophole

Following Mr. McGuire’s presentation, several members asked Mr. McGuire questions about the Act.

Q: Could any piece of this be enacted outside of Congress?

A: Mr. McGuire stated that Congress must enact the proposals.

    Q: Does the funding for this proposal have to be approved by the newly formed Deficit Super Committee?

    A: Mr. McGuire stated that the President wants Congress to take action now, rather than wait for the Super Committee to deliberate.

    Q: Will any part of this be paid through increases to federal employee retirement contributions?

    A: Mr. McGuire stated he was uncertain, but subsequently sent the following information to Mr. Sobien: The Administration is proposing that the employee contribution toward accruing retirement costs would increase by a total of 1.2 percent (0.4 percent a year over three years beginning in 2013), but the employee’s total pension would remain unchanged. In addition, the Administration is proposing to eliminate the FERS Annuity Supplement for new employees. While Federal agency contributions for currently accruing costs of employee pensions would decline, these employers would pay an additional amount toward unfunded liabilities of the retirement system that would leave total agency contributions unchanged over the 10- year budget window. The Administration does not anticipate this policy change will negatively affect its human capital planning and management, nor inhibit the Government’s ability to serve the American people. This proposal is estimated to save $21 billion over 10 years.

2. Implementation of the 1% Performance Cap

Bill Fleming, Director of the Office of Human Resource Management, provided an overview and update on the 1% performance cap. He stated that the OMB directive on performance caps was issued on June 10, 2011, and they are currently working with OMB and OPM on a draft policy for FY 12. The draft is currently before two Commerce unions for National Consultation Rights, due back the following week. Mr. Fleming stated they will refine as needed. He further stated that they have worked with OPM and OMB on gainsharing proposals for the Census bureau and the Patent and Trademark Office. Mr. Quehl suggested this might provide a unique opportunity for the Labor Management Forum to collaborate on additional gainsharing ideas, and directed the Innovation and Working groups to propose additional ideas.

Mr. Bob Budens, President of the Patent Office Professional Association, asked when the Forum would backfill vacant positions on the working groups. Mr. Quehl directed Frank Milman to identify missing positions and work with the Forum to fill them. Anne Rung, Senior Director of Administration said that the Forum would be voting later in the meeting to nominate a Co-Chair of the Innovation Working Group to replace Andrew Winer.

Mr. Howard Friedman, President of NTEU Chapter 245, asked if time-off falls outside the 1% performance cap. Mr. Fleming replied that it does fall outside the cap and that the 80 hour cap was lifted. Mr. Friedman recommended we promote the time off option for managers.

Mr. Quehl alerted members to congressional proposals to eliminate or reduce Commerce programs, including the Technology Innovation Program (TIP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which would impact 118 employees. He stated that the Department should be forward thinking in anticipating where programs are at risk for workforce reductions. He offered that we should find ways to place the impacted employees in existing Commerce positions. A member asked if employees impacted by the closing of the Census regional offices were being given priority for Commerce vacancies. Another member asked if we have knowledge of who the employees are that might be impacted by program reductions or eliminations so we can begin to identify their skill sets, another asked if they are all located in DC. It was further noted that we may want to consider salary freezes if the vacant position is at a lower level than the employee’s current position. Mr. Quehl said that these are exactly the discussions we should be having and recommended the Forum reconvene to talk further.

3. VERA/VSIP

Mr. Quehl introduced the topic of VERA/VSIP by saying that again, we are trying to get ahead of the curve in certain areas, including ways to reduce our budget before we face significant cuts. One means by which to do that, he argued, is Position Control (VERA/VSIP) to abolish, downgrade, or delay in hiring, a position vacated by an employee voluntarily separating from the Government. He stated that 75 employees thus far have agreed to a voluntary separation.

Mr. Fleming provided an update for the Forum on the process, stating that we received approval on request #1, which represents eight different Bureaus for a total of 469 VSIPs. Commerce submitted request #2 to OPM including submissions from Census’ regional offices and OIG for a total of 291 VSIPs. Request #3 is for NOAA, request #4 is for NIST, and the final request will include miscellaneous requests from the Bureaus which did not make the previous rounds. He stressed that all these requests have to go to OMB and OPM for final approval. Thus far, 23 out of 28 in CFO/ASA have agreed to the voluntary separation. A member noted that the $25,000 limit has been in place for 25 years, that it is only $17,000 after taxes, and that the incentive should be adjusted for today’s dollars.

Jonathan Markley, Environmental Protection Specialist, Economic Development Administration, suggested that the program was not as successful as touted, and that EDA employees are not availing themselves of this opportunity because the additional payment raises their tax payments. Mr. Friedman offered that this incentive should be extended to allow people to take action in FY 12. Mr. Sobien further suggested that it might be beneficial to offer early in the year. Mr. Quehl replied that we have the funds now in FY 11, but we are uncertain about FY 12. We may also find ourselves in an extended continuing resolution (CR) next fiscal year. Missy Owens, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Deputy Secretary, stated that under an extended CR, we will be in the same situation next year.

Weather Ready Nation

Mr. Sobien provided the Forum with a briefing on Weather Ready Nation, a program he helped develop at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He presented in partnership with Jason Franklin with the National Weather Service (NWS), NOAA.

Mr. Sobien stated that this past year was marked by a bad tornado season, resulting in 500 deaths. He explained that we don’t have the ability to alert people to leave an area because we cannot effectively and quickly communicate, and we don’t have the benefit of time. If we notified a community last-minute to evacuate, the result would be significant gridlock and the inability for anyone to leave.

Therefore the goal of the program is to notify a targeted population as far in advance as possible to evacuate, and do so through an effective communications structure. Right now the NWS forecasts 45 minutes to an hour in advance. Mr. Sobien argued that with the right tools and systems in place, NWS can forecast before it’s even a storm, sometimes with two to three hours of lead time. He cited an example of an emergency responders unit in Germany who worked in total coordination with doctors, police and others. He argued that with that type of coordination and communication, you can notify populations well in advance to evacuate.

He suggested that if police had video conferencing capability in their vehicles, the NWS could communicate to them about which areas to evacuate. In other words, you could evacuate people strategically, rather than en masse. He stated that most deaths are from car accidents in bad weather. He argued that the key understanding the impact of what people are doing with data.

The Weather Ready Nation project is a series of pilot projects funded in-house through the NWS with extra people and extra equipment. They have several pilots underway throughout the nation, including, but not limited to, pilots in Silver Spring, Maryland; Forth Worth, Texas; State College, Pennsylvania; Charleston, West Virginia; Tampa, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; and San Francisco, California.

Each pilot project has a different focus. For example, the Fort Worth, TX office is responsible for briefing regional and state leaders such as governors and federal regional directors. Charleston, West Virginia is responsible for flash flood preparedness and response. San Francisco, CA is responsible for aviation forecasting. Mr. Sobien stated that by putting extra forecasters in specific airports throughout the nation with high volume of travelers, they have been able to limit delayed flights and achieve significant savings.

Telework Go-To Team

Mr. Quehl reminded the Forum that the last quarterly meeting, it was agreed that a team be assembled to promote telework throughout the Department and to ensure a smooth transition to the new policy.

As a result, a “Telework Go-Team” was assembled, and Dannette Campbell, USPTO Senior Advisor, presented on the progress of the team. The team is represented by the following employees:

      § Pam Schwartz, POPA

      § Melanie Tung, USPTO POPA

      § Kathy Duda, USPTO POPA

      § Jay Besch, USPTO NTEU 245

      § Harold Ross, USPTO NTEU 243

      § Stacy Chalmers, Census

      § Catherine Jones, Census

      § Danette Campbell, USPTO Telework Senior Advisor

Danette Campbell explained that in August 2011 she conducted a telework workshop for Department of Commerce telework points of contacts. The seventeen meeting attendees included representatives from DOC, ITA, Census, EDA, NOAA, and NIST. Agenda items included: (1) an overview of telework at the USPTO; (2) a discussion of the enterprise-wide telework policy telework tools; (3) gathering and analyzing telework statistics developing a telework website and communicating information agency-wide; and (4) November OPM Data call.

The Telework Go-To Team is proposing to meet with Bureau points of contact at the USPTO on a quarterly basis. Union representatives will be invited to attend the Go-To Telework Team Workshops and the next meeting will be held in November 2011.

Danette Campbell explained the goals of the telework team, which are:

    • to provide updated information about telework (policy, program design and development, data collection and reporting) in the federal government;

    § to provide information regarding best practices in the development of telework policy, program design and development, data collection and reporting;

    § to facilitate the development of telework programs at all Department of Commerce agencies;

    § to ensure that the benefits telework are made available to all eligible positions/employees at all Department of Commerce agencies; and

    § to provide tools for telework data collection that are consistent across Department of Commerce agencies

A discussion followed about implementation of the policy and its timing. One member suggested the telework team was poorly timed given the due date for the policy was a week away. Bill Fleming reminded the Forum that the policy had been developed with union input, and that the purpose of the telework team is to assist with the implementation of the policy. Mr. Friedman questioned whether we take this team outside of Commerce once they have been successful within Commerce.

Mr. Sobien asked whether the team should serve as a formal means by which employees could appeal decisions about whether they qualify for telework. Mr. Quehl stated that the team should provide advice and guidance and serve as a resource, but is not designed to serve as a formal arbitration channel.

Mr. Quehl invited the telework team to provide the Forum with an update at the next quarterly meeting of the Forum.

Nomination of Ted Johnson to Replace Andy Winer

Mr. Quehl moved to nominate Ted Johnson as Co-Chair of the Innovation Working group, to replace Andrew Winer. The Forum approved.

Working Group Updates

    • Innovation Working Group: Bob Budens provided an update on their effort to provide employees with resources on child care, an issue that was raised by employees as important to them in last year’s Employee Viewpoint survey. Mr. Budens stated his team was able to identify information on elder care and post it on the Forum website, but they have been unable to gather useful information on child care. Sheila Nichols from NIST volunteered to lead the effort to find and compile information.

    • Metrics Working Group: Travel: Mary Pleffner, Director of the Office of Administrative Services, reported to the Forum that the largest FY 11 trends in Non-Contract Fare Use were 1) no space available was available, and 2) the non-contract carrier was lower. The savings from October 2010 through August 2011 were over $204,000.00 with August being the largest monthly savings ($50,920.19). The Department will continue to monitor and communicate with Bureaus and travelers; increase marketing efforts to encourage use the most cost effective fares; and develop process to request reimbursement from travelers utilizing higher cost fares without valid justification

    • Bill Fleming stated the final response rate for Commerce to the Employee Viewpoint Survey was 56%, which is 10 percentage points above last year’s 46% response rate and 7 percentage points above this year’s 49% Government-wide response rate. He highlighted four bureaus/organizational units that met the 70% goal, which included:

      OIG – 85%

ESA – 77%

ITA – 73%

NTIA – 71%

    • Communications Working Group: Howard Friedman, co-chair of the Communications group, stated that the role of the communications group is to highlight and market the Forum projects. Moving forward they will work on promoting the Telework Go-To Team, enhancing the Forum website, and developing information on gainsharing in partnership with the other two working groups. He asked if there might be anything the Communications group could do to facilitate marketing the strong work of the Forum. He suggested that they draft a document highlighting their work that could potentially be shared with OMB.

Commerce Connect

Dennis Alvord, Director of Commerce Connect, explained that Commerce Connect is a customer service initiative that improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the Department’s existing program delivery. Specifically, it:

    • Allows bureaus to extend (through CommerceConnect delivery infrastructure) and enhance (through an expanded portfolio of program assistance) their service delivery

    • Improves client satisfaction (via one-stop service) and outcomes (from value-added referrals)

    • Facilitates smarter more integrated resource use and deployment through a complementary delivery infrastructure

He further explained that CommerceConnect is not:

    • A new bureau or a program

    • A “direct” assistance provider

    • A replacement for existing Federal, state, local or nonprofit programs, services or delivery mechanisms that already exist

Mr. Alvord elaborated that CommerceConnect provides a framework for coordinated one-stop assistance to businesses. Specifically, it:

    • Matches firms’ needs to U.S. Department of Commerce solutions by streamlining access to the Department’s 70+ business-focused programs, products, services

    • Promotes a multi-faceted approach to addressing business needs

    • Enhances the culture of customer service Department-wide

    • Strengthens alliances across organizational lines

    • Collaborates with other Federal, state, local and nonprofit enterprise assistance
    providers

Mr. Alvord highlighted their successes to date, including a strong infrastructure of training, web tools, performance tracking, as well as a Michigan field operations office, a Gulf Coast regional presence, and 17 existing bureau field offices. They have also trained over 170 DOC staff.

Moving forward they are focused on several items, including:

    • Deploying the remaining CRM licenses

    • Refining the website

    • Developing a holistic marketing strategy

    • Deploying a new regional field service delivery model

    • Cross-linking activities and providing thought leadership to emerging BusinessUSA government-wide business assistance effort

Mr. Alvord discussed successes to date, number of referrals, number of offices, number of crm licenses deployed, number of customers engaged.

Mr. Alvord noted that CommerceConnect offers a way for Commerce employees to obtain enhanced training in the full portfolio of Commerce business assistance programs, either through scheduled in person training sessions or newly available computer based training modules on the Commerce Learning Center (CLC) website.

Mr. Alvord expressed interest in working with the Forum to market the availability of the CommerceConnect service to their constituencies, particularly via the toll free number 888-728-4190 and recently refreshed website with new intuitive service tool at www.CommerceConnect.gov.

Other Business

    • The Forum has no objection to the report to the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations on the Department’s councils and committees’ measurement of success against existing metrics.

Future Agenda Items

    • Scott Quehl suggested that Danette Campbell provide the Forum with an update at the next quarterly meeting on the Telework Go-To Team.

    • Scott Quehl suggested that the Forum have discussion about identifying opportunities within Commerce for any employees impacted by the reduction or elimination of programs.

The meeting adjourned at 4:30 PM.




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