March 4, 2004

Homeland Security workers criticize personnel reforms

By David McGlinchey

Federal labor union officials and Homeland Security Department workers lashed out Thursday at proposed DHS personnel reforms, saying the moves could stifle internal dissent and leave the country vulnerable to attack.

Congress has allowed the Defense Department and Homeland Security to rework their personnel systems in response to the threat of terrorism and the strains of continued military operations abroad. DHS officials have proposed to allow more flexibility in workforce management, implement performance pay initiatives, lower the standard of proof for disciplinary actions and streamline the appeals process.

Lawmakers have praised Homeland Security repeatedly for including unions in the discussions that led to the development of the reforms. Shortly after the proposed regulations were released, union leaders expressed cautious optimism about working with DHS to overhaul the personnel system.

That optimism "has evaporated, at least in the rank and file," said T.J. Bonner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Border Patrol Council. Bonner said that DHS officials listened to border patrol workers' opinions on the new personnel system but did not incorporate any of their ideas.

"The collaboration was much like the collaboration when a family consults with their 3-year-old on where to go for vacation," Bonner said.

Some officials suggested the DHS cooperative effort was undertaken merely to placate lawmakers.

Homeland Security inspectors said that the proposed reforms would allow employees to be fired without legitimate cause and would suppress constructive criticism in the department. Several inspectors at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bureau said that serious security lapses occur every day at airports across the country but under the proposed reforms employees would not be able to voice their concerns.

"Everything is smoke and mirrors with [DHS]," said CBP Inspector Stephen Weekes, who is president of AFGE Local 1917 in New York City. "It's just a game to make Americans feel safe."

Union officials acknowledged that they face an uphill battle against the regulations. Under the current legislation,

DHS can implement the proposals without significant changes. The most vocal Capitol Hill criticism of the regulations has come from Democrats - but Republicans hold majorities in both the House and the Senate.

"We need to reach out and convince some Republicans," Bonner said.