Speedy Lunches Urged at SEC as Union Decries Time-Clock Watching

Add the ability to eat quickly to the list of skills needed to work at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

In a dispute that has sent pangs of resentment -- and perhaps hunger -- across the agency, the SEC’s union chief has warned workers to keep lunch breaks to a half hour or risk being disciplined as “absent without leave.”

“Despite the fact that most SEC employees are often told that they may take an hour for lunch, technically, we are only entitled to thirty minutes,” wrote Greg Gilman, president of the union, in an e-mail sent to SEC workers last week. “Do not fall into the trap of believing that because you are a ‘professional’ the rules do not apply to you.”

Fueling the union’s angst is a new SEC plan to require the use of security cards that record the times people enter and exit the building in its offices across the country, a move Gilman wrote would “substantially increase surveillance.” He said that data from the system in place at the Washington headquarters is increasingly used in cases against employees accused of skipping out of work.

SEC officials said the worries are overblown. While the security system does keep data on employees’ comings and goings, the agency doesn’t check the information unless there is a reasonable complaint that attendance violations are occurring, said John Nester, an SEC spokesman. Those tips come from both managers and co-workers, he said.

Rocky Relations

Relations have been tense between the SEC’s management and its union, which represents some 3,000 of the agency’s 4,000 employees. Gilman has also criticized a recent decision by Chairman Mary Jo White to give added retirement and vacation benefits only to managers and has accused the commission of reneging on part of a student-loan repayment program.

A Government Accountability Office report in July described agency workers as having “low morale” and a “distrust of management.”

Gilman’s Oct. 24 note said the group, part of the National Treasury Employees Union, is seeking the services of a federal mediator to help resolve the matter.

“The ‘time-clock’ issue at headquarters has grown into a festering problem,” he wrote, adding that it has “resulted in a larger volume of high stakes discipline cases” against attorneys, accountants and examiners. The practice also goes against a deal the union negotiated with the SEC a decade ago that Washington office security turnstiles wouldn’t be used for “monitoring time and attendance,” Gilman wrote.

Now, to be on the safe side, he urged employees to take precautions.

‘Be Careful’

“Be careful not to take a walk to get coffee, even with your supervisor,” he wrote. “A case may be built very easily based upon these types of behaviors.”

The SEC said there hasn’t been an uptick in attendance probes. Over the past year there have been a half dozen cases where the security information was used as evidence and none of them have been based on brief absences, such as coffee breaks, Nester said.

As for lunches, Nester said it is true that the current union bargaining contract calls for only a 30-minute daily break. Even though it is not in the agreement, all workers are permitted two 15-minute breaks as well, he said.

“There has been no change to our longstanding agreement with the union on this issue,” said Nester, who declined to comment on the specifics of Gilman’s e-mail.

Gilman didn’t return calls requesting comment.

Not all of White’s interactions with the union have been troubled. In July, she and Gilman issued a joint statement lauding a new collective bargaining agreement they negotiated.

The contract, set to go into effect shortly, could help tamp down the lunch controversy: One of its provisions would allow some employees to telecommute for as many as five days a week from home -- where presumably there are no time clocks installed.

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