DHS rules: Flexible or unfair?

Union officials and lawmakers representing districts with large numbers of federal workers want major changes to the Homeland Security Department's personnel system, but backers of the new rules say reform is needed.

"I know a lot of folks are concerned," said Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Federal Workforce and Agency Organization Subcommittee, which held a March 2 hearing on the controversial DHS proposal. "I know there's apprehension."

Throughout the three-hour session, subcommittee members objected to the regulations issued Feb. 1 and suggested architects should revise their plans. Witnesses included officials from the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Personnel Management and federal employee unions.

The DHS workforce changes would award raises based on job performance, not seniority, and make it easier for managers to fire or transfer employees. The system would preserve collective bargaining but reduce the number of situations that require bargaining. President Bush plans to use DHS' new system as a model for the entire federal government.

GAO Comptroller General David Walker described the new rules as more flexible and more reflective of market conditions, as Congress had wanted. "There have to be reforms," Walker said. "Eighty-five percent plus of pay adjustments have nothing to do with performance. Under the [General Services Administration] schedule, you get a pay increase due to the passage of time."

But the system, Walker said, lacks crucial details, such as defining core competencies for performance expectations. DHS "is not committed to putting all expectations in writing," Walker said, drawing numerous responses. He recommended the creation of a DHS chief operating officer position, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate for a seven-year term. The COO would be responsible for the business transformation process. Walker also recommended continued consultation with employees and managers.

"Some of your comments can certainly scare some employees," Porter told Walker. "Flexibility scares employees. They're accustomed to a process."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate, lashed out against some of the phrasing on pay-for-performance rules. "Are you suggesting that civil servants are incompetent and not deserving of raises?" she asked. Walker responded that government employees are as good, if not better than their commercial-sector counterparts.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said the new rules alter collective bargaining, allow cronyism and hold employees accountable for performance without delineating expectations. "These regulations are not fair, they are not credible, and they are not transparent," Davis said. "Members on both sides of the aisle should be outraged."

According to the new rules, an individual might be rated unacceptable, acceptable or outstanding, said Ronald Sanders, OPM's strategic human resources policy associate director. Unacceptable employees don't get pay increases, and if performance doesn't improve, the person could be demoted or removed, Sanders said.

DHS officials plan to phase in new compensation programs during the next three years. About 8,000 employees in DHS' headquarters, the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, Science and Technology, Emergency Preparedness directorates, and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center will convert to the new pay system in early 2006. Pay-for-performance rules would take effect in early 2007.

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

Union representatives critiqued the proposal yesterday, issuing specific recommendations for boosting DHS morale. Officials from the National Treasury Employees Union, the American Federation of Government Employees and the Federal Managers Association suggested a more transparent, detailed system. An informal NTEU online survey, with 300 DHS employee responses, found that 88 percent of employees do not support the new pay system, and 88 percent named better management as the top measure needed to improve homeland security.

"It is unfortunate that the final regulations place excessive limits on employees' collective bargaining rights, drastically alter the appeals process for DHS employees and provide too few details for a major overhaul of employee pay, performance and classification systems," said Colleen Kelley, NTEU's president. She said it would be premature and irresponsible to extend the DHS system governmentwide.

Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Associations, said he is cautiously optimistic about the new regulations but stressed the need for major training and funding before implementation. "The leadership of DHS must work in tandem with Congress, managers and employees in creating a training program that is properly funded and leaves little question in the minds of those it affects of their rights, responsibilities and expectations," Perkinson said.

T.J. Bonner, the National Border Patrol Council's president, called the new policy a mistake. "Once these changes go into effect, people will be running to the exits in record numbers and they won't come back," he said.

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