Unions riled by background checks

A GSA union says it will file an unfair labor practice complaint about HSPD-12 program

HSPD-12 FAQs

Some federal-employee unions are uneasy about mandatory background checks required under the government’s secure identity verification program, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12. At least one union is preparing to file an unfair labor practices charge. Union officials say the mandatory background checks invade employees’ privacy and could lead to job losses.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents about half of the General Services Administration’s employees, will file an unfair labor practices charge early this week, officials said. NFFE’s Region 5 vice president, Charles Paidock, said the union has no choice but to take the complaint to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

“I don’t like going through third parties,” Paidock said. “You don’t often succeed. But I have to in this case. It’s the logical thing. They are not honoring their obligations under the Civil Service Reform Act to meet and bargain in good faith.”

The union is upset because it says GSA has refused to negotiate on how it is implementing a provision of HSPD-12 that requires that all employees and contractors go through background investigations. GSA officials said the agency has met its labor obligations by briefing NFFE and the other union representing its employees, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

An agency spokeswoman also said GSA has offered to meet with the NFFE to answer further questions.

NFFE is not alone in its concerns. At NASA’s Ames Research Center, federal employee union leaders said they were concerned about the types of questions that contractors working at the space center were asked during the registration process, and they were worried that their employees could face the same issues. Paul Davis, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers for NASA employees at Ames, said his chapter complained that some of the questions that asked for medical information from the contractors were too intrusive. The chapter also said answering personal questions on a computer posed a privacy risk.

Davis said Ames managers have been receptive to his concerns.

A group of scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory also wrote a letter in April to lawmakers expressing their concerns about the investigations. 

Under implementation guidelines for HSPD-12, OPM is responsible for conducting the background investigations of employees and contractors. OPM officials said the background checks are not substantively different than what new federal employees typically face.

“These are going on exactly the same track as any other background investigation that determines suitability of access to classified information,” said Kathy Dillaman, OPM’s associate director of investigations. “Just because someone has been in a position for a long time doesn’t mean that there may not still be a risk involved.”

Paidock said reinvestigating employees is unfair and amounts to having them reapply for their jobs.

OPM said the background checks are not meant to target anyone and that the information asked is not political or ideological.
FLRA listens to employees’ complaintsWhen employee unions or employees file an unfair labor practice complaint, they must follow procedures set up by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Those procedures stipulate that:
  • Unions, managers or employees can file an unfair labor practice complaint with FLRA if they believe that labor relations statutes are not being followed.
  • An administrative law judge hears the complaints and issues a decision on whether there was a violation of labor law.
  • If there is a violation, the judge orders relief.
  • Parties can appeal within 25 days of the judge’s decision.
  • Parties can participate in an optional FLRA program to resolve disputes without litigation.

— Ben Bain

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