A federal labor arbitrator has ordered the National Weather Service to pay employees at five offices in rural Alaska for overtime they lost when the agency cut operating hours.
The arbitrator ruled Monday that by reducing operating hours at stations in Annette Island, Cold Bay, McGrath, St. Paul and Yakutat, the weather service violated an agreement with the union representing its employees to operate those offices for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the arbitration award.
The 16-hour day was agreed upon in part because it could support the stations' weather balloon schedule, said Richard Hirn, the attorney representing the National Weather Service Employees Organization. The balloons collect data from the upper atmosphere twice a day, and the launches are synchronized with every other station in the United States, Hirn said. This data helps inform forecasters' weather models.
When the offices' hours were reduced, “they didn’t have as reliable a weather model,” Hirn said.
Because the rural offices had small staffs — only two or three people per station — the employees worked regularly scheduled overtime to maintain the 16-hour schedule.
Hirn said employees were largely satisfied with this arrangement because it meant they were paid for the equivalent of eight days rather than the standard five per week.
“That almost doubled their paycheck,” Hirn said.
Under the new hours, the offices would remain open for only eight hours four days a week and the usual 16-hour schedule for the remaining three days. The union argued it wasn’t consulted before the changes were made, the award said.
The agency argued it was legally entitled to make changes to the offices' operating hours as it saw fit, “and changes to the operating hours at the relevant (offices) are helpful for employees to maintain their health and family life,” the award said.
The union estimates the back pay will exceed $500,000. The agency will also be required to restore the stations' regular operating hours, the award said.