Not Worth the Paper . . .

Original post, July 5, 2017

In the Spring of 2017, as the Agency began to promote and encourage employee participation in the upcoming Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), the Broadcasting Board of Governors distributed a three-color printed document titled “Management Accountability Charter.” One of the points in the Charter was assurance that managers and supervisors of the Agency would ensure that employees work in a zero-tolerance environment for favoritism, retaliation and discrimination.

Less than two weeks after the Union received a copy of this Charter, we were informed by a bargaining unit employee that he had been retaliated against for being a whistleblower.

The employee had sent an email to CEO Lansing and VOA Director Bennett with copies to the Director of Human Resources and the Director of Management Services. The letter was notification that the employee believed his supervisor was committing prohibited personnel practices. Specifically, that the supervisor had given an unauthorized advantage to improve the prospects of a particular individual for a vacancy. He asked that his name not be revealed to his supervisor because he feared retaliation.

He heard nothing until on May 16th when he was presented with a Letter of Reprimand from his supervisor for specifically writing “false, malicious or unfounded statements against me”. The basis for the charge was the email he had sent to CEO Lansing and Director Bennett reporting his supervisor’s suspected prohibited personnel practices.

The annual OPM Employment Viewpoint Survey contains the statement: “I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” Positive responses by BBG employees to this statement are consistently well below the government average. Apparently nothing ever changes in the Agency which ranks at or near the very bottom among mid-sized federal agencies in the annual survey.

According to the Whistleblower Protection Act, a whistleblower may file a complaint if s/he reasonably believes that there is a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement, waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a danger to public health or safety. A prohibited personnel practice is a violation of federal law and this is what the employee believed he was reporting. Presumably, the employee is not tasked with proving the allegations. What should have happened is that the Agency should have investigated the allegations. If they proved true, then the situation should have been properly dealt with. If no prohibited personnel practice had taken place, the employee should have been informed of this fact and that should have ended the matter.

In discussions with management officials on this matter, it was their opinion that because there had been no vacancy announcement opened at the time of the employee’s email, the supervisor could not possibly have committed a prohibited personnel practice and it did not matter that the employee “suspected” that he had.

Therefore, apparently, the employee, or for that matter, any employee in this Agency, is fair game.

The Agency refused to remove the Letter of Reprimand. The Union has filed a grievance.

Wreath Laying Ceremony at VOC Memorial

Original post, June 15, 2017

It couldn’t have been a more beautiful summer morning on June 9, 2017 to hold the 10th annual ceremony at the Victims of Communism Memorial located on a triangle of land at the intersection of Massachusetts & New Jersey Avenues & G Street in northwest DC within view of the U.S. Capitol and 2 blocks from Union Station.

By 9 AM, the sidewalk leading up to the Lady Liberty monument of the VOC memorial was ablaze with colorful flower displays and wreaths of all shapes and forms from 23 embassies and over thirty ethnic and human rights organizations brought there to be placed at the foot of the memorial to commemorate the millions of victims of communism who perished throughout the world under totalitarian regimes. The brutal dictatorships which caused their deaths have now disappeared in many countries of Eastern & Central Europe, the Baltics and the USSR yet still flourish in many places in the world like Cuba, North Korea and China.

Before the roll-call of nations and organizations for the wreath-laying ceremony, several hundred people gathered to listen to the keynote speaker, Dr. Vytautus Landsbergis, a hero of the opposition movement in Lithuania during the Cold War, who became the head of the newly reestablished Lithuanian state, and helped shepherd the country through the process of writing a new constitution and establishing new governmental institutions. In his speech, Dr. Landsbergis spoke not only about Soviet brutality in Lithuania, but to the universality of communism’s attack on the human soul. And he warned: “The events of current days seem to be bringing us back in their direction, and new monuments for bloody dictators, like Stalin or the Kims, are still being erected.”

Dr. Landsbergis announced the recipient of the VOC Truman-Reagan medal this year: Dr. Mart Laar, a historian, professor, and scholar who became the first official Prime Minister of Estonia’s Second Republic in 1992.

All this history was running through the minds of the attendees as we lined up in the ceremonial line. AFGE Local 1812 Local President, Tim Shamble, and Union Legislative Coordinator, Marie Ciliberti carried the a beautiful, multi-colored wreath to the foot of the VOC memorial and placed it there in the name of the VOA China Branch broadcasters as well as on behalf of all the VOA and Radio/TV Marti broadcasters represented by AFGE Local 1812.

At the very end of the ceremony, there was a musical interlude offered by Wuilly Moisés Arteaga, a 23-year-old Venezuelan violinist and freedom advocate who recently became an icon of the movement protesting the abuses of the Maduro regime in Caracas. Wuilly gained worldwide attention in May when he joined the chaotic street protests.

“I went out to protest with my only weapon,” he told The Washington Post, referring to his violin.

While it was a somber event, it was also comforting to know that the people in the assembled crowd were there to remember the courage of those who fought the dark days of communism. From the stories of many who escaped tyranny, we know for a fact that our VOA broadcasts did give hope and comfort to many who were trapped behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. Even though this dreadful system is not as prevalent as in the past, there are still places in the world that continue to suffer the stifling restrictions of this defunct political philosophy, places like Cuba, North Korea, and China. And it is making a resurgence in places like Russia.

The Union hopes to return to the VOC event once again next year.

Our Friend and Colleague Parichehr Farzam is Gone

Original post, June 6, 2017

Parichehr Farzam came to the United States from her native Iran after the takeover by the mullahs in 1979-80. Before emigrating to the U.S. through France almost four decades ago, she had held high-level government positions in her native Iran. Her obituary in the WASHINGTON POST mentions that she was the daughter of an Iranian princess by the name of Talat-el-Molouk Azodi Qajar.

A fighter for civil and women’s rights both In her native and adopted countries, Parichehr became an international broadcaster for the United States government advancing to the position of White House correspondent, first for Radio Farda and then for the VOA Persian Service, covering the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Parichehr served the Union and bargaining unit as a member of the Executive Board of AFGE Local 1812 and was also the Women’s Issues Coordinator for the Local. She was an extremely generous person especially with her time while representing her colleagues at work. She passed away after a long battle with cancer. Another battle she waged was against what she believed were discriminatory practices in the Agency in its disparate treatment and compensation of employees who worked for the VOA language services and the English services. She filed an EEO case when she found out that as a White House correspondent, for a VOA language service (Persian/Farsi), her salary was at least a full grade lower than the White House correspondent for VOA Central News who happened to be male.

This apparently drew the wrath of Agency officials. After filing her EEO complaint against the Agency she was instructed to cease acting as a White House correspondent. She did not accept this and continued, even at the risk of insubordination, to file reports from the White House. At the same time Parichehr was battling the BBG bureaucracy she was also battling cancer. Due to the effects of chemotherapy, she would often find it impossible to report to work. In answer, Agency officials put her on leave without pay before deciding to remove her entirely from Federal Service despite her many years of honorable service to her adopted country and the fact that she was losing her battle with the dread disease.

A little over a month after the Agency officially removed Parichehr from Federal Service she passed away.

To the very end, and true to her nature, Parichehr Farzam remained unbowed and undefeated.

Applause for TSP Training

Original post, April 14, 2017

We want to offer our compliments to the Agency’s training department for finally arranging TSP training for the employees. After the Union informed the department a few months ago that the Thrift Savings Program offered free training in the DC area, the Agency began to work with the TSP to schedule training. The first class, in early April, was completely full with almost three dozen employees having to be turned away.

Other classes have been scheduled and we have no doubt that they, too, will be popular. We hope that the obvious and overwhelming demand for these classes will motivate the Agency to continue to offer them. The Agency has not offered these classes for many years, and we are happy that the agency responded to our suggestion to offer them.

The key is consistency: this kind of training should be offered at least twice a year to all employees, with no lapses after the latest one in 2017. Because TSP does not charge the Agency for classes in the DC area (and only charges expenses for training outside the DC area), we see no reason for the Agency not to offer them.

It may also help improve morale at VOA. TSP training is something that OPM expects all federal agencies to offer their employees.

In addition, we have TSP training materials here at the union office for BBG employees, and one of our stewards recently attended a three-day-long training class at TSP headquarters. While we cannot give investment advice, we can certainly help you understand some of the technical aspects of the retirement savings program and give you personal attention. Just call or drop by and we will help you.

We will continue to work with the training department to encourage the agency to offer more TSP training, including for those at the mid-career level and those planning to retire soon. We encourage the agency to also offer retirement training and other kinds of financial planning training, including that provided by the nearby Graduate School USA.

We are also glad that the Agency is considering offering TSP training to our employees in Miami.

This a real plus for all employees. Again, kudos for the quick response.

Unsung Heroes in Our Midst

Original post, March 8, 2017

Think about it. You work in the VOA Newsroom or in one of the VOA language services, and suddenly, without warning, one of your colleagues experiences respiratory failure and becomes unresponsive. Faced with this medical crisis, other than calling 911 immediately, what would you do in those intervening moments before the EMT help would arrive?

Not so far-fetched because that’s what actually happened on Wednesday, February 15th in the VOA newsroom. Fortunately for the employee concerned, Paula Hickey, a member of the Digital Asset Processing unit and a member of the AFGE Local 1812 Executive Board, just happened to be in the area. Hearing the commotion, she came over and immediately began applying the knowledge and skills she had learned from her EMT training and then began applying CPR. Another employee assisted Paula while a colleague made the call to 911.

During a crisis like this, time seems to stand still. According to a witness, it seemed like at least five minutes before the nurse arrived and another five minutes before the Fire Department’s EMTs arrived. In the meantime, Paula continued applying life-saving aid until the EMTs could take full charge of the situation. According to experts administering CPR while waiting for paramedics to arrive could be crucial in ensuring that the victim’s brain receives oxygen and his or her neurological functions remain intact.

A co-worker of the VOA Newsroom accompanied the stricken employee in the ambulance to the hospital and notified relatives.

It is heartening to know that quick-thinking and trained fellow employees were able to step in and save the life of a colleague. We especially want to acknowledge Paula for her actions. We commend her for taking the time to learn such life-saving skills that proved invaluable in this crisis. According to one witness, “Paula was like a rock star” in taking charge and exerting command of the situation until medical help could arrive. Those without the requisite skills in resuscitation and stabilization could only wish that they had the skills to do what she did as she methodically determined that the employee had a pulse but was not breathing and then started to apply the appropriate life-saving first aid required.

Experts among firefighters and police have stated that the time before paramedics arrive on the scene is the most critical because the brain is not receiving normal blood profusion. Quick action, as what happened in the VOA newsroom, increases the chances for survival. Administering CPR and especially electric shocks from a defibrillator, if necessary, make it much more likely neurological functions will remain intact.

This may be a good time for management to take a look at offering CPR training to those employees who wish to take it and also to check if defibrillators on hand are in good working condition as well as making sure that first-aid supplies in the language divisions are in a handy place and accessible. Paula has suggested that these kits include: gloves, protective eyeglasses, CPR pocket masks, tourniquets, splints and other necessary material for emergencies that no one can predict when they will happen.

AFGE Local 1812 is glad to report that the employee who suffered the respiratory failure has been released from the hospital, is now at home and doing well.

Caution Regarding Social Media Posts

Original post, February 22, 2017

We have been getting questions from our bargaining unit members regarding the Agency’s “Best Practices Guide for Social Media”. Specifically, employees want to know if the Agency can restrict what they post on their own private social media sites. The answer: in some cases, almost certainly – yes – and in others, probably not.

VOA Director Amanda Bennett, in a recent directive to employees, stated: “I want to remind all of you that our social media policy is extremely clear. As journalists, we must maintain our neutrality even on our personal social media accounts.

“We have had some unfortunate incidents recently in which people have used their personal accounts to express political views. That is unacceptable. As journalists we are required to be unbiased and neutral. Expressions of strong political feelings even on private accounts undermine our credibility and reliability.”

That is the Agency’s stated policy.

Is this policy a violation of free speech rights? The courts have ruled that there is a balancing of interests that is weighed between the employee’s free speech rights and the impact of those free speech rights on the employer’s operations. The Courts have found that there is no violation of First Amendment rights where the Government Agency has an interest in maintaining the public’s respect, trust and reputation. As a broadcasting entity, the BBG could make a strong argument that the expression of personal opinions of its journalists on controversial subjects on their personal social media sites could negatively impact the Agency’s reputation and credibility as a journalistic entity. So, although the Agency is prohibiting its employees from speaking as private citizens on matters of public concern to the public via social media, if the matter went to the courts or arbitration, the Agency would have a strong argument that journalists who express opinions on controversial matters in their personal capacities (i.e., their personal and private Facebook or other social media pages) directly and substantially disrupt operations and employment relationships.

Thus, VOA journalists are unlikely to prevail in an action alleging that the Policy is an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech.
However, in the case of non-journalist employees, it would be a different story because non-journalist employees would have a strong case regarding the Agency’s prior restraint to their First Amendment rights; it would be difficult for the Agency to demonstrate that non-journalists expressing opinions on private social media sites could directly and substantially disrupt operations and employment.

Bright Stars

Original post, February 15, 2017

Despite finding that our Agency continues to consistently dwell near the very bottom of the Partnership for Public Service ‘Best Places to Work in the Federal Government’ rankings, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a few supervisors and managers that excel in facilitating a better-than-average work environment with employees. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey does not reveal information regarding the specific successes or failures of individuals, but we know that even in a night sky there are some bright stars.

Please help us know which managers and supervisors have been, in your view, contributing to an improved and better workplace. What have they been doing that makes a very positive difference?Please drop by the Union office on the first floor of the headquarters building to fill us in on the details, or send an email to:

Managers and supervisors that have been making a positive difference may be just the ones to aid other managers and supervisors in bringing a better workplace to a wider number of employees.

Thank you for taking the time to respond.