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.

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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:

afge1812@hotmail.com

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.

Bottom of the Barrel Blues

Original post, February 11, 2017

Just like the annual cherry blossoms signaling spring, we await the next installment of the OPM Employee Viewpoint survey. In 2016, just as in all the preceding years, the BBG dwelled in the depths of the cellar as it received its annual tiara imprinted with the shivery words: One of the Worst Places to Work in the Federal Government. Once again, bottom of the barrel. So, the perplexing questions of WHY?, WHAT-THE?, OH, NO need to be addressed in an attempt to try and solve the puzzle of why this Agency has failed so often and so badly. It really shouldn’t take a PhD in rocket science to figure it out.

For the past several years, the Agency, through selective groups, has conducted its own internal evaluation of the results of the OPM Employee Viewpoint survey. These are presented in a chart with color graphics that basically show which Agency units (elements) are above or below what is defined as – “the line” as the average of the positive responses received in several categories of the survey. However, the “line” is actually skewed because it is based not on the average responses per category for agencies government-wide but on the averages within the Agency itself. In every single case, the average results in each category for the Agency were lower than the average results for agencies government-wide. Another problem: the breakdown is only for those areas that had at least 10 responses to the survey. So, some places fall through the cracks.

AFGE Local 1812 was provided with these Agency charts for 2015 and 2016. The chart clearly shows the areas within the Agency that are doing well and those areas that are failing.

First the good news.

In 2015 the survey results for the Indonesian Service were abysmal. In 2016 the results were almost completely the opposite with the only area “below the line” being “employee engagement”. Why the dramatic shift? The Agency should make the effort to determine just what the catalyst was. Another area that showed a significant turnaround was the French-to-Africa Service while the English-to-Africa results showed a precipitous drop. Again, the Agency should make the effort to determine what brought about the positive and the negative changes in the very same Division.

Other areas within the Agency that ranked particularly better than others were the Latin America Division, Technical Support (with the exception of Radio Maintenance), Central Production Division, Eurasia Division, Multimedia Production Desk, Office of Security, and TSI (with the exception of the Office of the CIO).

Now for the failures of which there were more than a few.

The very worst of the worst include the VOA Persian Service, Russian Service, China Branch/Mandarin, Burmese Service, Central News and Production Unit, English Division, English Radio Branch/Regional Service, English Radio Branch/Africa Service, Office of the CIO, Office of the CFO, and Financial Operations. For these areas, management should focus on making serious changes and do it quickly.

The Persian Service, China Branch/Mandarin, English Division, English Radio Branch/Regional Service, Office of the CFO, Office of the CIO, and Financial Operations have been chronic problem areas. The obvious question should be why they have been allowed to languish?

The Russian Service, Burmese Service, Central News and Production Unit, and the English Radio Branch/Africa Service all registered significant drops in 2016 spiraling down from the 2015 results. With this critical backward direction, is there anyone in the management cadres who could take a look at these areas and determine not only the causes but also come up with solutions?

Those areas that were not at the very bottom of the list but were not much better include the Afghan Branch, Urdu Service, VOA News Center, Real Time News Desk, and the National Desk.

This is no time for cosmetic changes or appointing yet another task force to gather ideas to improve morale and leadership in the Agency. We’ve been down that road before. Good ideas were presented in the Workplace Solutions effort which built upon the failed Workplace Engagement effort a few years before. The Partnership for Public Service also has case studies available of other faltering federal agencies which made tremendous strides in improving morale in a relatively short time.

Enough already of endless studies and committees. Agency management needs to have the courage and resolve to do what is required.

Management Crisis: An Ongoing Cycle

Original post, January 13, 2017

We see a management crisis at the Voice of America. Every year that crisis is documented in the OPM Employee Viewpoint Survey. AFGE Local 1812 officials have for years observed what seems to be a management culture baked into the Agency, and it is perpetuated year after year.

We invite you to watch a short video from a management expert who we believe addresses leadership concepts that are problematic at the VOA.

Inside Quest – Leadership – Simon Sinek … 9:54

Update, August 22, 2017:  We appreciate that managers are now required to attend training which may address some of the pertinent issues. We hope positive change will result.

Overtime: Are You Paid Properly?

Original post, Facebook, January 5, 2017

It has come to the attention of AFGE Local 1812 officers that employees may be facing pressure to accept compensatory time instead of overtime pay. You need to know your rights.

NON-EXEMPT EMPLOYEES*

If you are a non-exempt employee [you are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)], you can never be required to accept comp. time. If you work regularly scheduled overtime [think non-emergency overtime (overtime that the Agency knew would be needed, or should have been aware of the need, prior to the start of the workweek)] there is no choice – you MUST be paid overtime pay. If the overtime is irregular (think emergency overtime) it is YOUR CHOICE.

It is against federal regulation to coerce you to take compensatory (comp.) time. According to 5 CFR 551.531 (c):

“An employee may not directly or indirectly intimidate, threaten, coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten or coerce any other employee for the purpose of interfering with such employee’s rights to request or not to request compensatory time off in lieu of payment for overtime hours.”

Please report suspected violations of this regulation to AFGE Local 1812.

EXEMPT EMPLOYEES*

If you are an exempt employee (not covered by the FLSA), you MUST be paid overtime (Title 5 overtime) for any regularly scheduled overtime worked.

If you work irregular overtime and your grade is GS-10 or lower, it is YOUR CHOICE whether you receive comp. time or overtime pay (your Title 5 overtime rate is one and one half your basic hourly rate of pay).

If you are above the GS-10 grade level and you work irregular overtime, it is the AGENCY’S CHOICE on how you will be compensated. If compensated it will be at the Title 5 overtime rate (one and one half the minimum hourly GS-10 basic rate of pay or your hourly basic rate of pay – whichever is greater).

USING YOUR COMPENSATORY TIME

Non-Exempt

If you are non-exempt and you do not use your compensatory time by the end of the 26th pay period after it was earned, the comp. time converts to overtime pay (at time and one half for every hour of overtime worked).

Exempt

If you are an exempt employee and you do not use your comp. time by the end of the 26th pay period after it was earned, the Agency has the discretion to either forfeit your comp. time or to convert it to pay. However, if you were not able to use your comp. time by the end of the 26th pay period after it was earned due to circumstances beyond your control (e.g., you requested it and your supervisor would not let you use it), you must receive the overtime pay at the overtime rate you would have been paid otherwise.

If you have any have any questions please contact the AFGE Local 1812 office.

TRAVEL COMPENSATION TIME

Travel compensation time is different. Travel comp. time must be used within a year after it is earned. It has no cash value and expires after one year.

* To determine whether you have been designated as ‘non-exempt’ or ‘exempt’, check box # 10 on your Earnings and Leave Statement. If it is marked “N” you are non-exempt. If it is marked “E” you are exempt.

Stress: The Silent Menace

Original post, December 2, 2016

Any job can have stressful elements, even if you love what you do, in both the private and federal sectors. Stressful working conditions are certainly part and parcel of those who work in U.S. international broadcasting with its deadline pressures, irregular schedules, and occasional frenetic activity. That stress may not compare in intensity with the stress factors of those who work in air traffic control, border protection, the prison system, or the military but they are just as real.

Documentation shows that when workplace stress is chronic and overwhelming, it becomes harmful to both the physical and emotional health and well-being of the employees. Reports from NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath) and the CDC recognize that chronic stress can contribute to such physical ailments as depression, blood pressure elevation and cardiovascular problems, a weakened immune system, and diabetes, among others. Dealing with workplace stress can cause such related coping issues as overeating, smoking or abusing drugs and alcohol.

According to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, the price tag adds up overall to billions a year in lost productivity. If chronic workplace stress is not addressed, it ultimately leads to absenteeism, job resignations, chronic illness, poor quality work, anger, resentment, burnout, disability and worse. NIOSH concurs, adding that stressed-out employees incur healthcare costs that are 46% higher and account for more than 60% of doctor visits. It also figures as a big factor in poor morale, no stranger to the employees in this Agency and well-documented over the years in the OPM Human Capital Survey where the Agency’s low marks have “earned” it the unflattering description of – one the ‘bottom feeder’ agencies and one of the worst places to work in the federal government.

There are many causes of stress in the workplace. Among them: poor management, unclear expectations of employees’ work responsibilities and no say in the decision-making process. This Agency certainly qualifies in all three of those categories.

Chronic under-staffing and increased workload is another and is all too evident in the VOA workforce where many employees must work long hours and overtime without seeing any respite, except empty promises and excuses, down the road. All appeals of the Union to management to correct this situation have been largely ignored which only increases employee frustration. This is exacerbated by the fact that management continues to blithely post more supervisory positions while rank-and-file jobs stay unfilled.

For many years, Agency employees were faced almost annually with threats of a reduction-in-force, the infamous RIF process directed mostly at rank-and-file and not the bloated bureaucracy. This constant feeling of risk of termination had an extremely negative effect on employees and still lingers in the minds of many who survived that time. And the specter of termination appears in many studies as a prime cause of worker stress.

Another factor in inducing stress in the workplace is excessive workload. For the past ten years, our international broadcasters, especially in the language services, have been expected to contribute and create not only products for radio and affiliates but also for TV and social media including videos. There IS a breaking point.

What can be done to reduce workplace stress and contribute to more healthful working conditions and ultimately better morale? That’s a very important issue for Union and Management to discuss and management certainly doesn’t have all the answers as we’ve seen in those silly little ice-cream socials, faux celebrations and hyped-up outings of yesteryear which have had no impact. In a newly renovated workspace a chill-out room was added which shows that management is at least aware that it has a problem with stressed-out employees. What will probably help even more is rewarding employees for their good work, listening to their concerns and treating them as professionals. Allowing more Flextime and working-from-home could also help as it’s been shown to increase the trust factor between Agency management and its employees. To even get that for employees has been a herculean task.

By and large, what has sustained the employees of this Agency has been the unmitigated dedication to the mission of VOA which continues to endure in spite of and not because of its often-uncaring and defective management.

Huzzahs! Handling a Hurricane

Original post, October 18, 2016

AFGE Local 1812 applauds the management at Radio/TV Marti for their handling of the impending arrival of Hurricane Matthew off the coast of Florida and for making the safety and well being of its employees a significant part of its overall plan for handling the weather emergency.

On Wednesday, as Matthew was battering Jamaica and Haiti and swirling in the Atlantic off the U.S. southern coast, the Director of the Martis, Maria Gonzalez, met with senior staff and developed a strategy to deal with the situation. She also addressed the employees and explained the various scenarios developing, depending on the possibilities of the storm’s direction.

On Thursday, Director Gonzalez and all her managers reported to work and pitched in to direct employees to ensure that all the essential work was completed as soon as possible. Throughout the day on Thursday, the Director was responsive to AFGE Local 1812 representatives, answering union concerns promptly and expeditiously.

Also on Thursday, non-emergency employees were granted administrative leave. It was decided that all emergency employees would only have to stay until all their essential work was completed and then would be granted administrative leave in order to get home in time to be with their families and to prepare their homes for the hurricane. Most, if not all, were granted administrative leave by 2:00pm that day.

Moreover, an emergency contact phone number for the employees was set up so employees could call in for updates. Employees were instructed to check the emergency number to see when they should report back to work.

Thankfully, Hurricane Matthew did not wreak much havoc in Miami and its environs (unlike our fellow employees in Greenville, N.C.). But Radio/TV Marti was prepared for the threat and a potential worst case scenario and we appreciate that.

Kudos.