Vets' preference rules at issue in Defense personnel reform

By Karen Rutzick

Despite assurances from the Defense Department, unions are concerned that the National Security Personnel System will fail to protect veterans preference.

Union leaders are worried that the system's flexibilities for reductions in force allow supervisors to circumvent veterans preference when downsizing.

Under NSPS, supervisors can base groups of jobs targeted in RIFs on geographical location, line of business, product line, organizational unit or funding line. Within those areas, supervisors can designate RIF competition groups based on career group, pay schedule, occupation, pay band or trainee status.

Those considerations are too all-encompassing, said Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

"They've got it so broad they can do it any way they want to do it," said Ault. "The area of competition can be a four-foot square on the floor."

Ault and others worry that increased flexibility to designate who competes to keep jobs allows supervisors to safeguard favored employees, undermining veterans preference rules.

But department officials, who have not shied away from endorsing changes to the pay, classification and labor relations portion of Defense's personnel system, insist that veterans' preference is untouched in the NSPS.

"Through workforce shaping flexibilities, the department will create a reduction-in-force system that places more emphasis on performance while continuing to protect veterans' preference rights," NSPS regulations stated.

The Pentagon, in conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management, met with several veterans organizations in the fall of 2004 about the new system.

In a statement put out after that meeting, OPM said the system's "flexibilities are being married with pillars of the civil service, such as veterans preference, in order to create a new, agile personnel system."

The American Legion, a veterans organization with about 3 million members, was one of the groups that met with the Pentagon and OPM. The organization's deputy director of economics, Joseph Sharpe, said he is concerned about the potential loophole for veterans preference, but thinks rigorous oversight and training would remedy the problem.

"It's such a new program and there are possible loopholes and we are, of course, concerned about those loopholes," Sharpe said. "We believe that training is essential for those things not to happen, and we've been promised that managers and supervisors will be going through a training session so those types of things will be prevented."

"Being able to properly monitor [and] to decrease any loopholes where agencies can get around veterans preference" is crucial, Sharpe said.

Sharpe also said he's hopeful that the new system will speed the hiring process so that veterans don't have to wait six months or a year to get hired. That prospect balances his worries about NSPS, he said.

But Mark Roth, American Federation of Government Employees general counsel, said he thinks veterans groups such as the American Legion will see that training and oversight will not be enough to stop the decline of veterans' preference once the system is in place.

"They've pulled such a hoax over the veterans groups who, I think if they knew this was going to happen, would be up in arms," Roth said.

He gave an example of how NSPS could damage veterans' preference.

"If you're in a group that's competing for a job, and you've been targeted for a reduction, it is true that veterans stay ahead of all nonveterans," Roth said. "However, ... they could actually RIF a work project on the seventh floor of a building or a DoD facility which is all veterans. In that case [the veterans] have no one they can compete with anymore, and they're all gone."

NSPS spokesperson Joyce Frank said these concerns are not valid. She said the only change to retention rules is that more weight is given to performance.

"Under NSPS, reduction-in-force rules are designed to increase the impact of performance, minimize disruption and simplify the process," Frank said. "The retention order gives more weight to performance than to service time. However, NSPS gives veterans the same level of preference over nonveterans as they have in today's system."

Roth said that after the curtailment of collective bargaining rights under NSPS, diminished veterans' preference is AFGE's second priority, ranking above pay issues. AFGE and nine other unions filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon on NSPS labor relations. The lawsuit will delay implementation of the system until at least February.