Labor relations agency battling overloads, cuts


WASHINGTON -- The chairwoman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority recently told a congressional subcommittee that the agency has reduced the number of pending cases to its lowest number in years despite a growing caseload and a dwindling budget.

Jean McKee, the chairwoman, said the FLRA has steadily improved its handling of cases, closing 522 during the 1992 fiscal year, a jump of 11 percent over the previous year.

At the end of January 1993, the number of cases pending was 179, the lowest in the history of the agency, she said.

"We have reached important milestones in the adjudication of cases which will enable us to provide broader assistance and leadership to the agencies and unions," Ms. McKee said.

But while the agency's caseload has increased by 20 percent, its budget has dwindled by 30 percent, making it tougher than ever to provide quality service, she said.

"As a result of the personnel-intensive nature of the FLRA's budget, little flexibility exists to absorb budget reductions or mandatory cost increases, such as scheduled annual pay increases," Ms. McKee said. "The only option is to reduce the number of agency employees, thus affecting our ability to fulfill our mission for an effective and efficient government through the timely response to case filings."

She said the agency's caseload is likely to increase this year because of cutbacks in federal jobs proposed by President Clinton.

"With the current changes taking place throughout the Defense Department, and the Clinton administration's commitment to reducing the size of the federal work force over the next few years, we expect the trend for the FLRA to continue and potentially accelerate," Ms. McKee said.

The challenges facing the FLRA were aired Feb. 25 at a hearing of the treasury, postal service and general government subcommittee, chaired by Maryland's Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th.

The FLRA is an independent agency that handles labor-management relations for the government. It includes the Federal Service Impasse Disputes Panel and the Foreign Service Labor Relations Board.

Edwin D. Bruebeck, chairman of the impasse panel, said the panel has been successful settling disputes over smoking and has fought for environmental differential pay for employees working around asbestos.

"We have continued our search for innovative procedures to promote settlements," he said.

One such procedure is to have parties select a private fact finder, who can either make recommendations to the feuding parties or report the information to the panel, which can make the ultimate decision.

Michael W. Doheny, deputy general counsel of the FLRA, said that, while the workload in his office has increased dramatically the past decade, resources have dwindled, causing a streamlining in procedures.

"The total annual workload has increased over 50 percent from 1983 to 1992," Mr. Doheny said. "During the same 10-year period, total authorized positions have decreased from 171 to 133, a reduction of 22 percent, while the workload per authorized position has increased 92 percent."

Because of the funding cuts, he said, the agency was forced to conduct virtually all of its investigations over the telephone rather than in person, decreasing its ability to thoroughly investigate all claims.

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