National Weather Service accused of spying on its unionized employees

© Nguyen Huy Kham
It looks like the National Weather Service is observing more than just clouds and wind. Its employees have filed charges against management alleging the federal agency is conducting illegal surveillance of private discussions on the union’s Facebook page.

“Management also made disparaging statements to employees about the contents of confidential discussions posted by members,” said a statement released by the National Weather Service Employees Organization, which has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, arguing that the spying is illegal.

The NWSEO said the surveillance, which began in 2014, involved spying on internal discussions on the page, but went further more recently, when the president of the union was chastised with direct comments and posts in the closed group.

“NWSEO’s members-only Facebook page is, in effect, a ‘virtual’ union meeting that continues 24/7 to accommodate all members, regardless of shit work or times zones,” stated the NWSEO.

The union’s complaint said that management did try to conceal its surveillance, and “made disparaging remarks to employees about what has been said on the Facebook page, in order to chill the vigorous discussion that takes place on this Facebook page.”

In one instance, the president of the NWSEO, Daniel Sobien, posted an item critical of management on June 27. On July 6, David Murray, NWS director of management organization, “sent Mr. Sobien an intimidating email complaining about the content of this posting,” the complaint says. “Mr. Murray wrote that NWS management officials ‘were once again, disappointed in the tone, tenor and misrepresentations you made.’”

Sobien told the Washington Post that the Facebook page was for workers to “vent on certain policies.” He said he did not know how management obtained access to the page, as ordinarily members were cleared by one of the page administrators.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority has not yet had an opportunity to review the complaint.

Susan Buchanan, an NWS spokeswoman, told the Washington Post that the agency does “not conduct surveillance on our employees’ private social media accounts, including NWSEO’s members-only Facebook page.”

The complaint was filed just weeks after the National Weather Service went dark for four hours nationwide as tornadoes threatened the central US, hail pelted Iowa, and thunderstorms blew up in South Florida.

During the blackout on July 13, emergency alerts failed to send or were delayed, while radar and current weather observations were only intermittently available to the public.

Staff was forced to Tweet screen captures of radar images during severe weather and pass them on in a chat program available to the media, including in Kansas City, where two county fairs were hit by high winds.

A spokeswoman for the NWS, Maureen O’Leary, said watches and warnings were available through NOAA weather radio and that the agency was in the process of network and infrastructure upgrades, which are due to be completed in December.

NWSEO’s Sobien said at the time that the NOAA weather radio may have been a realistic alternative in the 1950s, but “this is 2016, the majority of the population doesn’t own a NOAA weather radio.”

“Network outages prohibit our ability to save lives and property,” Sobien told the Palm Beach Post. “I understand they are working on a backup system, which begs the question, ‘Why don’t they already have a backup system in place?’”

NWSEO, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC, represents 4,000 employees working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US Department of Commerce.

The National Weather Service headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland has regional locations in Missouri, New York, Texas, Utah, Alaska, and Hawaii. With 5,000 employees, it collects some 76 billion observations and issues approximately 1.5 million forecasts and 50,000 warnings.