January 20, 2004

Civil rights group joins unions in fight against job competitions

By Amelia Gruber

A prominent civil rights group on Saturday vowed to step up its efforts to protect federal work from contractors, arguing that the Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative disproportionately endangers jobs held by minorities and women.

"We need to get together and lay out a game plan [to prevent outsourcing]," said Leroy Warren, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Federal Sector Task Force, at a Jan. 17 civil rights summit. The NAACP will join forces with federal employee unions and women's rights groups in attempts to demonstrate that minorities have the most at stake in public-private job competitions, Warren said.

Minorities and women hold many of the federal jobs targeted in competitive sourcing studies, the civil rights advocates claimed during a panel discussion. Panelists added that they are worried agencies will hand equal employment opportunity-related work to contractors who are ill-equipped for the jobs.

The Postal Service employs a high percentage of minorities, said panelist Marcia Johnson-Blanco, legislative director of the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees. Historically, Postal Service jobs have helped propel many African-American families into the middle class, she added.

But these jobs are no longer secure, Johnson-Blanco said, pointing to recommendations released by the Commission on the Postal Service in July 2003. The commission suggested that the mail agency consider outsourcing certain tasks, including delivery truck repair and real estate management.

Federal agencies must follow stringent guidelines on equal opportunity employment, but contractors are not necessarily subject to the same rules, said panelist Patricia Wolfe, president of Federally Employed Women (FEW), a 3,500-member advocacy group. "Contracting out should not be the first choice, it should be the last course of action," she said.

Competitive sourcing is also a concern for disabled federal workers. These workers would have a hard time finding work in the private sector if they lost their federal jobs, Wolfe explained. Contractors are not bound by veterans' preference rules, said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. Simon was also a panelist.

But Mark Wagner, vice president of government relations for Johnson Controls Inc., a Florida-based contractor, said on Tuesday that contractors operate under similar guidelines on workplace diversity.

"I don't know what different rules we've got," Wagner said. "We [are subject to] equal employment opportunity standards."

Wagner added that he has not seen any statistics showing that outsourcing hurts minorities. Job competitions could in fact have the opposite effect, he said, especially if small minority- or women-owned businesses win projects.

Contractors must grant federal employees the right of first refusal when hiring workers for government projects,

Wagner explained. "In fact, many contractors will want to hire existing workers. The myth that there's a lot of displacement going on is simply not true."

But union-backed rules written into some agencies' fiscal 2004 appropriations measures actually make it more difficult for minority- and women-owned businesses to compete for government contracts, said Cathy Garman, vice president for public policy at the Contract Services Association, on Tuesday.

Provisions in the Interior and Defense Department appropriations bills, signed into law last fall, grant federal employee teams a cost advantage in streamlined competitions with 10 to 65 jobs at stake. Such rules put smaller private companies, which are more likely to be owned by minorities, at a severe disadvantage in bidding on the work, Garman argued.

Most of the current evidence that competitive sourcing disproportionately affects women and minorities is anecdotal, Simon acknowledged. But research completed by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in October 2000 found that federal agencies typically offer women better pay and benefits than contractors do, she noted.

The NAACP will work alongside federal employee unions to collect additional data on the impact of competitive sourcing on federal employees, Warren said Saturday.