“IT’S PART OF YOUR JOB” SUGGESTION AWARD GRIEVANCE
Grievances over suggestion awards are not new. The two most common deal with disputes over the amount of money paid the employee for an adopted suggestion and whether an employee’s suggestion was actually adopted. But what can an employee do if the agency adopts the suggestion but denies him any award because it claims it was his job to think of ways improve the operation?
Back in 2009 three New Jersey IRS accountants, with the encouragement and support of their manager, created an application enabling their colleagues to download tax data in real time from the IRS national data center rather than wait weeks for a disk or flash drive to arrive with the data needed to move a case to closure or find tax fraud. Even when the data disk arrived, the average accountant needed to consult a computer specialized accountant for help.
Once the three had perfected the app at the local level, they submitted seven suggestions, and other local co-workers started using the app before national management even decided whether to accept the suggestions. Management took 18 months to ponder the idea only to reject any award for the employees. It alleged that since they did some of their creative work during duty hours and with the knowledge and support of their supervisor, they were merely doing what the job already required of them.
The app inventors turned to their local NTEU chapter for help, and it filed a grievance because the union’s contract with IRS requires management to pay employees the equivalent of 25% of the tangible first-year savings from the adopted suggestion award.
When management rejected the grievance, the union put the case before an arbitrator who ruled that management had adopted the suggestion and the employees were entitled to cash for their efforts. He rejected the idea that t is part of an accountant’s job to develop software or systems improvements. He scheduled a follow-up hearing to determine how much money the employees are entitled to under the NTEU contract.
One of the interesting hurdles in the next phase of this case will be OPM’s assertion that it gets to approve or deny suggestion awards of more than $10,000 and the President approves awards of more than $25,000. Fortunately, the courts have been willing to overrule OPM denials in the past. Given that this NTEU case involved seven separate suggestions, the employees could get up to $10,000 for each without any OPM agreement.
If your local wants to pursue suggestion award cases, we suggest it do a few things. Check out the contract to see if it imposes an obligation on the agency in connection with suggestions. If it does not, see if the agency regs. Generally, the language will have to impose a non-discretionary obligation, like a payment formula, in order for an arbitrator to order payment. Beyond that, the local should actively monitor the suggestion program. Find out who has made suggestions, follow up with them to explain what you can do for them, and ask for the paperwork on adopted suggestions that produced some money. It is always possible that the agency underpaid the employee. If the agency will not give you this information willingly, you can file a ULP if you can show particularized need and/or just bargain for the information as part of the term contract negotiations. (The FOIA is another way to get the data.)