Unions and FEPLI: Federal Employee Protections

Of the 157 million people actively employed in the United States, about 2% of these are civilian federal government employees.

For such a specialized group of the American workforce, if you are a federal employee there are some things to be aware of. One is that federal employees work under different conditions and rules than those employed in the private sector.

There are a few good ways to protect your rights as a federal employee.  Two popular options are membership in a federal employee labor union, and enrollment in Federal Employee Professional Liability Insurance (FEPLI).

There are a lot of myths out there about both federal employee labor unions and FEPLI. Here, we’ll shed some light on the facts.


What is a union?

A labor union is an organized group of workers, “formed for the purpose of advancing its members’ interests in respect to wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

According to the AFL-CIO, unions advocate for consistent, fair, and flexible schedules; wages and benefits that keep up with rising costs of living; job training programs to facilitate career mobility; wellness benefits; paid vacation; and more.

Unions have a constitution and bylaws, and are generally made up of members, an executive board, executive officers, and committees. A single main organization may have several – or even hundreds – of “locals;” smaller sub-groups of the union, broken up by location.

There are many labor unions, and most serve specific groups of workers. For example, the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), and the more broadly-focused American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).


“Labor unions strive to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation.” – Union Plus


What is FEPLI?

Professional Liability Insurance (the ‘PLI’ in ‘FEPLI’) is a type of insurance coverage designed to protect professionals against liabilities that can come from making a mistake in their job. PLI is also called E&O (Errors & Omissions) insurance.

Professional Liability Insurance – and make it Federal

FEPLI is what it sounds like: professional liability insurance designed just for federal employees. It comes in when the policyholder experiences an actual or alleged loss related to misconduct or wrongdoing in their federal job. FEPLI can provide access to individual defense counsel and representation, plus financial coverage for liabilities arising out of a covered case.

Like any insurance, you purchase a policy – a contract outlining the terms and conditions of the insurance coverage. The insurance agencies and carriers work with additional separate groups to provide your services: law firms to provide your legal counsel and defense; and federal employee associations to efficiently gather and share information with employees.


More than half of federal government jobs today are represented by a labor union. – USA Jobs


Federal Employee Unions – Then and Now 

Federal employees began unionizing over a century ago.

Established in 1917, NFFE is the first and oldest union founded to represent civil service federal employees in the U.S. Another major federal employee union, AFGE was formed in 1932.

However, these unions did not always look the same. It wasn’t until 1962 that public servants could engage in collective bargaining through their organizations. In that year, President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, finally allowing this right to federal employees.

Still, it remains true that for public sector employees, the right to unionize is not protected by federal law. Access to join a union varies. According to USA Jobs, just over half of federal government jobs today are represented by a labor union.

Today, unions also provide their members with additional benefits. For example, access to discounts on anything from movie tickets to heating oil. Many have educational resources, or a reference area dedicated to things such as banking and insurance recommendations.

On reviewing these resources, you’ll find that unions often recommend Federal Employee Professional Liability Insurance to their members – another confirmation that the two provide different, yet complementary services.


5 Things to Know About FEPLI and Unions

There are several major differences between labor unions and FEPLI. Understanding them can help you to effectively protect your career and take advantage of the benefits available to you.

1. Unions work for the benefit of the group; FEPLI works for the benefit of the individual.

Labor unions focus on issues that affect all employees. The minimum wage, overtime, unemployment compensation, and much more were enacted thanks to the negotiations of labor unions. These are broad concepts that came about because of – and affected the lives of – countless American workers.

FEPLI can offer access to help with personal legal defense that a union does not.

While thousands of federal employees have FEPLI, when you have one of these insurance policies, the representation offered with that policy is for you alone. If your claim is covered, you get assistance. That assistance is not dependent on your colleagues, or on any contract between your FEPLI provider and your employer. If provided, your legal counsel advises and defends you according to your own unique needs and situation.


2. Unions bargain for general workers’ rights; FEPLI offers legal and financial aid for defense.

Unions advocate for big-picture things that will help all their members, and they watch to ensure that agreements they bargained for are respected.

When it comes to personal legal issues at work, your union may ensure your employer follows the rules of engagement. They may even offer some preliminary counsel. But they do not provide individual legal counsel or defense, and they do not pay court or liability costs for you.

FEPLI, on the other hand, is solely an insurance product. The insurance administrators do not engage in collective bargaining, or attempt to make any changes to the workplace. They do not make employment contracts with, or rules for, agency employers.

FEPLI helps one federal worker at a time, on different issues. If a covered federal employee is accused of wrongdoing on the job and in need of defense, FEPLI can provide access to legal counsel. That counsel can advise and represent them in many employment matters, be it a federal investigation into the employees’ compliance history, a public lawsuit for infringement of rights, threatened termination, and more.


3. Many can benefit from union actions. FEPLI is limited to the policyholder.

Unions naturally encourage membership, and members do receive heightened benefits. Still, non-members cannot be excluded from the positive outcomes of union bargaining. If an employee chooses not to be an official member of their union, they are still entitled to representation. And they still benefit from the agreements made in favor of employees by union representatives.

To receive defense services from FEPLI, you must have an active policy. Insurance services cannot be shared or transferred, and must be active before an incident occurs to cover that incident. It is important to carry your own policy and renew it regularly to ensure that you are covered if a situation should arise.


4.Every federal worker can have FEPLI – but not everyone can join a union.

FEPLI is available for any civilian federal employee. Your role within an agency as a manager, supervisor, rank-and-file, or other employee type does not change your eligibility. The classification of your work, or the state you live in do not change your eligibility. If you are an employee of the United States federal government, you may enroll in FEPLI.

Union membership is a bit more complicated. For federal employees, eligibility to unionize can vary. Several categories of employee are excluded altogether.

Managers and supervisors may not join unions, as this can create a conflict of interest. Confidential employees, employees engaged in national security work, employees engaged in audit functions, and those in personnel are also among those who are prohibited.


5.Neither is required. One could be reimbursed.

You can choose not to be a member in your union. You can choose not to have an FEPLI policy. There is no requirement that you do either – it’s your own personal decision. If you do opt for one or both, there are annual costs associated with each which you must pay out of pocket.

When it comes to FEPLI, you may qualify for a reimbursement. Federal agencies are legally required to reimburse qualified employees up to 50% or $150 of the cost of their FEPLI premium each year. There is no federal reimbursement for employee union dues. 


Caring For Your Federal Career

Ultimately, your career is what you as an individual do to support your lifestyle, and that of your family. It is what you have worked hard to build.

It’s an American ideal to protect your rights as a worker and hold on to what you’ve toiled for. And that’s exactly why both unions and Federal Employee Professional Liability Insurance exist today. Thanks to those who came before us, each of these was created to serve important purposes, and they complement each other well.

Your work is important – and valued. As you navigate the complexities of the federal workforce, remember that you have advocates. FEPLI and federal employee unions are your specialized support system, ready for you to reach out.



Article authored by and containing the opinions of Starr Wright USA. This article is offered solely for informational purposes. Starr Wright USA is a marketing name for Starr Wright Insurance Agency, Inc. and its affiliate(s). Starr Wright USA is an insurance agency specializing in insurance solutions for federal employees and federal contractors. For more information, visit WrightUSA.com. Starr Wright USA is a division of Starr Insurance Companies, which is a marketing name for the operating insurance and travel assistance companies and subsidiaries of Starr International Company, Inc. and for the investment business of C.V. Starr & Co., Inc.