Wasteful High Jinks at the Labor Department
Staffers slam DOL busy work, propaganda, and favoritism.


Quin Hillyer

One complainant says that Fillichio for years used his office’s balcony as the equivalent of a smoking lounge, inviting others there too and leaving black smudge marks all over — although smoking anywhere on the premises, inside or out, is explicitly forbidden in federal buildings. Some employees with smoke sensitivities were exposed to the fumes wafting back inside from the balcony. One source says that the ashes once started a small fire in the bushes below the balcony.

Smoking on the balcony was the one violation that Fillichio acknowledged to me, though he noted that he had stopped that practice and had quit smoking entirely in October 2012.

Again and again, sources say, they fear making formal complaints, and fear being quoted by name, out of fear of retaliation. They don’t even trust that the complaint process will be complied with.

Workers’ fears are backed up by the action of a key union, which charged the Labor Department with failing to comply with labor laws in its own internal practices. The American Federation of Government Employees sent a letter on January 16 of this year to Deputy Secretary of Labor Patricia Smith. The letter outlines

grave problems pertaining to the scheduling and presentations of mediations and arbitral hearings. With respect to mediations, from 2009 to the end of 2013, management simply refused to mediate even the most minor grievances. . . . [Also,] management has been so very uncooperative in even empaneling arbitrators . . . [that] the cases awaiting hearing just became further and further backlogged. . . . We need arbitrators brought on board as expeditiously as possible; we need our grievances heard.

Finally, many DOL staffers objected to the hiring of former Washington Post reporter Stephen Barr to a senior position under Fillichio. Barr had no federal experience, they note, and little or no experience managing staff or significant budgets. One source reports that Fillichio openly told people he was going to hire Barr even before the position had been advertised — a gross violation of competitive-hiring rules for federal-government jobs. Several sources say that Fillichio had to submit Barr’s name several times to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and “pull strings” before OPM would approve the hire. Barr did not return calls seeking comment.

Speaking with NRO Monday, Fillichio defended several of the under-fire projects with enthusiasm — and with a pleasant, gracious demeanor — while dismissing others as “old chestnuts.” He specifically declined all comment on personnel matters and work atmosphere, other than to note that there are “no formal personnel actions or complaints” directed at him in his own file at the department.

Fillichio defended the elevator-poster project specifically, saying, “The use of staff and resources is minimal, and we find the elevator-poster campaign to be an extraordinarily effective way to communicate with our employees.”

I’ve worked in public affairs in the federal government, and I know there is value in internal communications that inform the vast departmental workforces, boost morale, and make employees better equipped to serve the public.

But the goal should indeed be public service, which means concentrating employee time and resources on outside communications rather than the sorts of self-indulgent practices described at Obama’s Department of Labor.

“None of these things,” summed up one source, “create jobs in America.”

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review.