No Bottled Water on Uncle Sam’s Dime

This morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decided U.S. Department of the Navy v. FLRA, resolving a labor dispute over water.   Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion for the court begins:

This case turns on whether a government agency may provide employees with free bottled water even when safe and drinkable water is available from water fountains at their work sites. Under federal appropriations law, the answer is no.

Apparently the Navy began providing bottled water to workers at a facility in Rhode Island because some water fountains had been manufactured with lead. After the water fountains were replaced, the Navy discontinued providing the bottled water without charge because “providing bottled water when safe and drinkable tap water was available would violate the legal prohibition against use of appropriated funds for employees’ personal expenses.” But the Navy failed to consult with the facility’s civilian employees’ unions before making its decision. In response, the unions filed a grievance, alleging that the provision of bottled water had become a condition of employment at the facility. An arbitrator and the Federal Labor Relations Authority agreed, only to be reversed by the D.C. Circuit on the following grounds:

Decisions of the Supreme Court and this Court have strictly enforced the constitutional requirement, implemented by federal statutes, that uses of appropriated funds be authorized by Congress. See U.S. CONST. art. I, § 9, cl. 7; 31 U.S.C. § 1301 et seq. Funds appropriated for agency operations may be used for “necessary expenses” but not for employees’ “personal expenses.” As the Comptroller General has long determined, when safe and drinkable tap water is available in the workplace, bottled water constitutes a personal expense for which appropriated funds may not be expended. Under federal collective bargaining law, moreover, an agency has no duty or authority to bargain over or grant benefits that are “inconsistent with any Federal law.” 5 U.S.C. § 7117(a)(1). Therefore, if safe and drinkable tap water was available at the Newport facilities, the Navy had no authority or duty to bargain before removing the bottled water.

We therefore vacate the decision of the Federal Labor Relations Authority and remand this case to the Authority to determine whether the tap water is in fact safe to drink. If the Authority concludes that the tap water is safe to drink, the Authority must rule for the Navy.