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HUD's 'Cubicle Issue' Stirs Up Staffers

By Ed O'Keefe

A trash bin inside the PD&R offices on the 8th floor of HUD headquarters this week as workers get ready to relocate temporarily. (Photo courtesy of a helpful Eye reader)

As Bush administration appointees at Housing and Urban Development get ready to pack up and leave, some career staffers also will be moving today, albeit temporarily, as their walled offices are gutted and replaced by cubicles.

The "cubicle issue" irks employees in HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R), a collection of economists and social scientists that work on issues related to HUD's regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, among other things. After more than a year of back and forth on the matter between HUD, PD&R employees and their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, workers were told last week to pack up ahead of today's move.

As The Eye's colleague Al Kamen first reported back in May, officials decided to convert the offices used by PD&R employees into a collection of cubicles as part of a consolidation plan to save money on rent. The affected employees are relocating temporarily to a HUD location three blocks and one Metro stop away from headquarters.

"There's absolutely no reason, other than to be punitive, to do this," says Eddie Eitches, president of AFGE Local 476, which represents HUD employees. The temporary move is "terrorizing 98 percent of the workers" in PD&R, Eitches says, since most are opposed to the move.

Union officials would have preferred HUD punt the issue to the Obama administration to decide and some workers view today's move date with suspicion, since it falls so close to the presidential transition. They're also upset that HUD is forcing them to relocate as Obama transition officials have asked them to prepare research on various policy areas.

Lest you have no sympathy for workers losing four-walled private offices in exchange for cubicles (the Eye has two of his own...long story), Eitches trumpeted a 2006 news report highlighting workers' concerns about productivity, privacy and handling confidential material in an open work space. But that same news article also mentions that cubicles help reduce costs, the primary reason for HUD's decision to displace certain workers.

"How could anyone say that saving $10 million doesn't make good economic sense?" said HUD spokesman Steve O'Halloran. HUD says the timing is merely coincidental and that the move is one of several that have occurred in the last five years as part of a department-wide plan to save millions of dollars on building and rent costs.

Eitches and others suggest however that the office-to-cubicle move wastes more money at a time when HUD should focus on doing its part to fix the nation's housing crisis. They also feel they were not properly consulted during the process, a point disputed by HUD.

Whether or not the workers are back in their original office space, sans walls, by the end of January as HUD promises, hopefully everyone will eventually be able to move on.

Do you, a friend or family member work in a Federal office with similar issues? Let The Eye know! E-mail or leave your information in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | December 4, 2008; 10:40 AM ET
Categories:  Workplace Issues  
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This move is 'terrorizing' HUD employees?

Wowsa. Our threshhold for terror has gotten pretty low.

Can't they maybe just do shared offices?

Posted by: HillMan | December 4, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

First, a blatant grammatical error: "The effected employees are relocating temporarily to a HUD location three blocks and one Metro stop away from headquarters." The correct word is affected, meaning "impacted."

Second, how does spending money for relocation and renovation save money? Perhaps in the long-term, but for right now, when every available penny is needed to address the current housing situation, it makes little sense.

Posted by: HoyaLawyer | December 4, 2008 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Look. Let the workers worry about their mission. The world of white collar workers everywhere workes in cubes. If it saves money, it is your obligation to do it for the taxpayers. I daresay that all the whiners could do with a lot of easy observation by peers and superiors--just to see that they are not web surfing, crocheting, or lollygagging on the phone. Get real for Obama; he won't countenance fed emps who don't pull their weight. He will cut staff who don't deliver.

Posted by: axolotl | December 4, 2008 11:33 AM | Report abuse

"HUD says the timing is merely coincidental and that the move is one of several that have occurred in the last five years as part of a department-wide plan to save millions of dollars on building and rent costs.

Any time the government says something is coincidental they are usually lying through their teeth.

Trust is essential to raport!


Posted by: patmatthews | December 4, 2008 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Dear Local 476:

The only reason to fear cubicles is because your lazy membership is engaged in MySpace and Facebook layouts, reading sports scores on ESPN, streaming video on YouTube, running clandestine music-sharing through Gnutella, or posting messages on this site defending your sorry butts.

IBM once designed offices without partitions so that bosses could monitor productivity every minute of the day. Pray that the government doesn't alter the current deal further.


Posted by: bs2004 | December 4, 2008 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Hey, HUD people. At least you have jobs. Maybe you'd prefer to quit your job and cruise the Internet in the comfort of your home instead of on taxpayers' dime.

Posted by: mediajunky | December 4, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

While change is always stressful, the arguments against it are more for the benefit of union organization than legit privacy and efficiency concerns. Although I must admit feeling the same way back c 1975 when I was first cubed and then less so in c1979 when the cubes came down and we went open space. This was in IRS offices, including such sensitive spots as the HR office and back room tax operations. This is a fake problem. Get over it.

Posted by: Bill_Wade | December 4, 2008 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Could not be less sympathetic. I work for a business where we had cubes and have now gone to shared / "hotelling" cubes to save money. It is far, far better than getting laid off.

I've worked with enough federal employees to know that some just care about a place for their plants and family pictures. For all those people, get a life.

Posted by: Guyasuta | December 4, 2008 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Have thought a bit more. The workers feel disrespected and diminished in value. Those are ligitimate emotions. However they should still recognize how the union is using those emotions as an organizing tool. And in these difficult employment times, take the paycheck and get over the sadness.

Posted by: Bill_Wade | December 4, 2008 12:40 PM | Report abuse

As a moved HUD employee let me clarify a few things. PD&R employees had agreed (begrudgingly) to the cubicles. The administration had set forth a plan to be implemented within the headquarters building in waves by division from January - March 2009 (and btw at less of a cost than moving to another building).

We were told 1 day before the Thanksgiving break that we were moving this week. That's what all of the hub-bub is about. We have been forced to toss, store and box everything with 3 days notice.

We are being treated like chattel instead of valuable employees. No one should scoff at that.

Posted by: ashrob123 | December 4, 2008 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Let me begin by saying that I never liked working at HUD. Management treated everybody with suspicion.

But moving around is no big deal.

We've boxed up and moved 3 times in the past year. If you can't box your office stuff up and move in half a day you were in serious need of a clean-out. So get over it.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 4, 2008 10:03 PM | Report abuse

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