Government report says NLRB is understaffed

By Don McIntosh

It’s official: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the federal agency that protects workers’ right to unionize—is understaffed and underperforming.

That’s according to a March 29 report from the government’s Government Accountability Office (GAO). The drop has been dramatic. In 2010 the NLRB had 1,733 staff. By 2019, that was down to 1,281, a loss of 452 employees, or 26%. All of the reduction came through retirements or resignations. And most of the reduction—414 employees—came out of the agency’s 26 regional offices, like the ones in Seattle and Portland that administer union elections in the workplace and interact directly with workers when their rights are violated by employers. NLRB regional staff levels dropped from 1,238 to 824 in the nine year period, while DC headquarters staff dropped from 495 to 457.

Underlying the staff reduction is a budget that has held flat while losing ground to inflation. Taking account of the effects of inflation, the NLRB’s $274.2 million budget in fiscal year 2019 was 17% below its budget in 2010.

So it’s no surprise that NLRB employees are increasingly dissatisfied. The GAO found the NLRB ranked last in employee morale out of all 17 medium-sized federal agencies in 2019, according to an annual federal employee survey. Among regional office staff surveyed in 2019, just 35% felt they had a reasonable workload, and just 26% felt they had sufficient resources.

Staff reductions that dramatic might have jeopardized the NLRB’s mission more severely if it weren’t for the fact that the agency’s caseload also declined, though by a somewhat smaller proportion. The number of union representation elections dropped by 31% from 2010 to 2019, and “unfair labor practice” cases—which account for 90% of the NLRB’s workload—decreased by 21%.

The GAO did find that the NLRB has increased staff efficiency thanks to improved technology, reducing the time it takes to process case related documents for example. But some staff interviewed by GAO said that policies pushing for greater speed in processing unfair labor practice complaints are negatively affecting the quality of investigations and staff morale.


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