Senate scrutinizes DHS personnel plan

Testimony from hearing

A Senate subcommittee today began analyzing whether the Bush administration's plan to overhaul pay and personnel rules at the Homeland Security Department is fair to workers and important for national security.

At the first hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee's Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee, witnesses presented a mixture of reasons to support the plan or oppose parts of it that restrict union bargaining rights.

U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, for instance, said a General Accountability Office report found that with strategic human management, DHS "can help it marshal, manage and maintain the people and skills needed to meet its critical mission."

Nevertheless, he said, DHS has "considerable work ahead to define the details of the implementation of its system."

Meanwhile, other witnesses said they are unsure whether paying workers for their performance and dismantling a 50-year-old pay system and replacing it with pay bands is an efficient way of doing business.

"We may put at risk the ability to hire many good people," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, (D-Hawaii), a member of the panel.

Four unions representing federal workers have filed a lawsuit challenging the new rules because they eliminate many bargaining protections for workers.

The new rules create an environment of mistrust and uncertainty among the workforce, testified Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Under the rules, workers will be phased into the new program during the next four years and will maintain their General Schedule classification until they are folded into the new system.

Nevertheless, Ronald James, chief human capital officer at DHS, told the panel the new rules are an important step to keep the homeland secure.

"We need the ability to move swiftly in response to threats," James said. "The current system is too rigid to do this."

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