Whistling in the dark

Bureaucratus: The whistle blower protection act seldom triggers appeals that are based only on terminations

It looks as if the Bush administration will not give federal airport security workers, hired as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the whistle-blower protection that is available to other federal employees. That means the workers will not be able to report — without fear of reprisal — a security breach that is the result of poor federal management.

This policy makes no sense. I'm not focusing as much on these workers' rights as I am on airport security. If an airport security worker believes airport security is being compromised because of poor management decisions, I'd want that employee to report what he or she saw to someone who can act on the information.

"It is a bizarre and dangerous irony that at a time when our government is spending billions to secure airports, it would consider denying these workers the basic right to speak out on security and safety threats," said Sonny Hall, president of the Transportation Trades Department, an AFL-CIO affiliate, in a statement.

According to a government official, the Transportation Security Administration wants maximum flexibility in hiring and firing airport security workers. They don't want employees "tying their hands" with frivolous appeals.

But the administration has overdone it. If they want hiring and firing flexibility, then they should specifically ask for it. The Whistle Blower Protection Act seldom triggers appeals that are based only on terminations. The act usually is invoked when there is an adverse action taken against an employee who contends that the action is a reprisal for whistle-blowing. But the act can't be cited in a complaint unless whistle-blowing is directly involved. An employee who is terminated because of poor performance has no appeal rights under the act.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has not decided if the new federal screeners will be allowed to unionize or engage in collective bargaining. Nor has he provided any hints as to whether the new workers will have the same set of employee benefits — retirement, health insurance, leave pay, for example — as other federal employees.

If he curtails the rights of employees to appeal various actions, he will be making a serious mistake. Such a move will make employees think he does not believe they can be managed within the framework of rights and responsibilities that apply to other federal workers.

Employees of other agencies in sensitive positions, such as the FBI and the CIA, may not have whistle-blower protection because of the sensitive nature of their work, but other avenues of appeal are open to them.

Let's give the new transportation security employees the right to blow the whistle on those who are undermining airport security without fearing reprisal. To do otherwise would be folly. But let's make sure that frivolous appeals don't hamper the important work of providing security to the nation's travelers.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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