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Coronavirus (COVID-19) viewed in a microscope

NFFE-FSC COVID-19 - General Information

COVID-19 information and resources are subject to changes and updates at any time. Bargaining Unit Employees (BUEs) should contact their local agency Pandemic Coordinator for any Agency internal-only COVID information.

National and Regional NFFE-FSC MOUs

FSC Statement on Return to Work - February 01, 2022

Return to Work

NFFE Members – Yesterday, you should all have received a message from USDA about their expectations related to return to work. USDA has stated an expectation that all employees should receive notice of their telework status and return to work date by Friday, February 11, 2022. The NFFE Forest Service Council (Union) has been trying proactively to engage with management on the topics of telework, remote work, and return to work throughout 2021, but management has been unwilling to bargain to reach an agreement. Thus, the Union believes that giving notice to employees about Telework, Remote Work, and Return to Work by February 11, 2022 is premature; the agency has not met their labor relations obligations. This is not because the Union has not tried to get to the table, as you can see below:

  • Telework and Remote Work: The Union requested bargaining over telework almost a year ago on February 3, 2021. The Forest Service did not engage in negotiations with us until November 2021 when USDA issued the new Departmental Regulation on Telework and Remote Work and the related FAQs. At that time, we were informed by Deputy Chief Tony Dixon that the Forest Service was not ready to implement Remote Work. We engaged in negotiations with that understanding. On January 11, 2022, Management provided the Union with a counter-proposal, and in a surprise change, they included Remote Work proposing to simply follow the USDA DR. The Union provided a counter-proposal on Telework on January 18, 2022, and we are working on our Remote Work proposal. Management is not available to meet with us until February 14, 2022, which is after USDA’s target date to send return to work notices to all employees. So we wait.

    Additionally, the Union requested a list of positions that the Forest Service has determined are eligible for Remote Work. We were told on January 13, 2022,
    "Agency leadership is still assessing, deliberating, and discussing the best path forward as it relates to the future of remote work within the Agency as well as the limits that Management must consider when balancing the assignment of remote work with the Agency’s business and mission needs. … I will ensure that Management notifies the Union when Agency leadership makes final remote work eligibility determinations for bargaining unit positions."
    So we wait.
  • Return to Work / Re-entry: The Union submitted a proposal related to re-entry in August 2021, at the time when “attest or test” was the policy. By the time the parties were ready to negotiate, the vaccine mandate came out, and negotiations were paused until early October 2021. In early October, the Union also submitted a request to talk about testing procedures on incidents. During October and November 2021, the parties met to share information, but negotiations did not begin in earnest until December 2021 after USDA finalized their COVID Workplace Safety Plan. During discussions, the Union repeatedly raised concerns about covid testing, building air quality, and other safety precautions to allow us to return to work while keeping everyone safe, especially those with significant job exposure or serious health conditions. On December 29, 2021, management provided a draft agreement that did not address some of the Union’s most significant concerns, and the Union responded with a proposal on January 12, 2021. To date, management has not returned to the negotiating table, and they have offered February 25, 2022 as the next date when they can meet. So we wait.

We will continue to try to resolve these issues in a timely manner, so that we can begin to determine what a post-COVID workplace looks like, while still balancing the needs to keep employees safe and healthy at work. We have heard occasional statements that the Union is holding up the return-to-work process. Let us assure you that we are not.

FSC Statement on COVID-19 - January 07, 2022

Reaffirming Your Union Commitment to Your Health and Safety

Unions were founded on the principle that collective action can change things for the better. Unions have always recognized perils in the workplace, and as a result, workers' health and safety have been a focus of our collective action.

Throughout Union history, the hardest work was drawing people from diverse backgrounds together for a common purpose. Employers sought to divide workers in the 1800s, often using existing racial issues as a wedge. When people were excluded from unions, employers had a ready source of workers who were willing to cross picket lines. Spanning these divisions proved to be a source of strife, but Union organizations were often able to overcome these differences to face a greater challenge.

Today, one source of strife is the response to federal vaccine mandates. Many are choosing to follow the mandates, get vaccinated, and later boosted. Others are choosing to resist the mandates for a wide range of opinions and views. The challenge before us is controlling the COVID pandemic. The hard work is addressing and overcoming the differences of opinions and views on vaccine mandates.

Recently, one employee posted a long email he was leaving the Agency because of the mandates. This was his personal choice. His arguments about personal risk assessment may be true and individual lifestyle choices do affect our readiness, but he missed the point of vaccine mandates. While vaccination protects the individual, more importantly, vaccinations protect those around us and contribute to ending the pandemic.

Individual rights go hand in hand with individual responsibilities. The never-ending compromises between the two have a long history, going back to this country’s Founders. Our Agency’s founding principle embodies that fundamental tenet:

"Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run."

Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester, 1905-1910

The vaccines available to all of us are safe and effective. The rigorous review and approval process has been completed. Adverse events reported to VAERS are not verified and do not prove that vaccines are unsafe. The FDA and its advisory committees continue to support the approved vaccines and study expanding vaccination to small children. It is a continuous process with recommendations changing as new data are collected and verified. That’s how science works.

The current vaccine mandates are lawful and proper, supported by settled case law going back more than 100 years. The legal challenges to the vaccine mandates for federal employees have not prevailed.

We all are interconnected in a community. Those who choose to resist vaccination because of personal choice and personal freedom are discounting that they live in that same community. COVID does not consider our opinions and views. It can infect anyone who does not mount an effective immune response.

Our friends and family members are dying. People who cannot be vaccinated or are immunocompromised are living in fear. Our hospitals are being overwhelmed by COVID patients, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated. And with our medical care system overwhelmed by COVID patients, critical care for other patients and their needs (cardio-vascular, cancer treatments, accident victims, etc.) are at great risk.

Unchecked replication in under-vaccinated populations leads to the emergence of new variants, like Omicron. Vaccination not only protects you, but it protects those around you, your family, your coworkers, your community, your health care system, your nation, and your world.

Your Union continues to engage with the Forest Service on a variety of COVID and return to work topics. USDA announced in December they will be issuing updated information in mid-January about return to work. We remain in maximum telework, while recognizing some work must be performed onsite at an agency facility or in the field. Your Union is currently negotiating the new Telework Policy and the Return-to-Work and COVID safety procedures with the Forest Service. Our goal is to develop policies that allow us to keep everyone safe and accomplish our mission.

On an individual level, your Union remains steadfast with balancing employee rights with vaccination mandates under the Reasonable Accommodation (RA) process. The RA process accommodates medical or religious reasons to remain unvaccinated. Your Union supports the efficient and equitable processing of these requests, and encourages everyone to follow the process to its conclusion, before making any decision that may affect their job and career.

Your Union commitment to the health and safety of all employees is unwavering. Your Union cares about everyone (Union member or not), as individuals, and all of us together in our communities. We all want this pandemic to end. We miss being able to do our jobs without constantly considering COVID.

Collective action with collective purpose is our only way to move forward. That is your Union’s commitment to you, and your health and safety.