February 19, 2004

Shattered Dreams

By Shawn Zeller

When officials in the Homeland Security Department began work on its personnel system last year, they were careful to include union officials in the discussions. The unions were involved in both a design committee, which created a list of options for the system beginning last April, and in a senior review committee, which met for three days last October.

But when department officials held briefings for union leaders last week to describe their final proposals, the measured tones of union leaders last year gave way to angry denunciations.

"I was surprised and disappointed in a lot of the language in these proposed regulations," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "There were some pretty startling things in there."

The department expects to publish its proposals in the Federal Register this week, but Government Executive obtained an advance copy of the 167-page document.

Kelley, as well as John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said they were particularly concerned about DHS proposals that would allow agency management to unilaterally impose rules on the deployment of personnel, assignment of work, and use of new technology, as well as a proposed pay system that would do away with the half-century old General Schedule system.

Under the department's proposal, it would set wages according to the results of annual salary surveys of private sector workers in different occupations and different regions. Those surveys would form the basis for setting wages that might vary dramatically by region. "There might be some markets which are depressed in pay, such as down along the southern border, but are the most active in terms of the mission" of the department, Gage said. The proposal might provide competitive pay, he added, but wouldn't necessarily lure the "best and the brightest" to the agency.

Gage said his "his biggest disappointment is that the [Transportation Security Agency] was left out." Agency officials have said that TSA's authorizing legislation prevents them from including its thousands of airport screeners within the new personnel system. Gage thinks that the refusal to incorporate TSA fully into Homeland Security is a result of the agency's unwillingness to allow the screeners to unionize.

Gage took a more upbeat tone than Kelley, saying that he was "cautiously optimistic" that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge would overhaul some of the proposed regulations before they are finalized later this year.