Bush administration officials and federal unions offered competing visions yesterday of how new personnel rules would change the workaday lives of employees at the Department of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said pay and personnel system changes would make the department more agile to counter terrorism and would give managers greater flexibility to deploy personnel when intelligence or circumstances warrant it.
"Our job collectively, as we look at this, was to balance the rights of the men and women they represent and the needs of the department, in the country, in terms of maintaining its mission," Ridge said at a late-morning news briefing. "I think we have come up with a good balance."
Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said the new rules "can truly serve as a model for the rest of the federal government." The administration plans to ask Congress to let other agencies follow in Homeland Security's path, officials said.
But federal unions hold a sharply different vision of what the Homeland Security changes mean. In the afternoon, labor leaders announced they would file a lawsuit to block the regulations, on the grounds that the department's rules go too far in curbing union rights and employee appeals.
"This isn't any improvement," John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said. "This is gutting the civil service. This is depressing federal pay, and this will hurt federal employees that we represent."
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said many employees do not object to compensation based on job performance. But, she added, "front-line employees know who the best employees are, and the first time they see the wrong employees being rewarded is when this system will fail . . . and that won't take long."
The debate was joined yesterday, even though the rules are still under wraps until they are published this week in the Federal Register. In previewing the rules, Ridge stressed that they should be viewed as "a multiple-year evolution" and told reporters that the department will move cautiously as it phases in systems to evaluate employees and link job ratings to pay raises.
For example, the first wave of 10,000 employees converting to the new performance-based pay system would not see it in their paychecks until January 2007. The majority of employees would not see any difference in how they are paid until January 2009.
The transition, however, could be highly contentious. Among the issues are:
Whether managers and employees are willing and ready to change the way raises are set.
The department would abandon the longevity-based General Schedule in favor of a system of broad occupational groups with typically four pay bands each. The traditional across-the-board GS raises would not be paid, but all employees performing as fully successful or better would get a "market" raise that takes into account national and local market conditions for their occupation.
Additional increases would go to top performers. Advancement within a pay band also would be based on performance, among other factors. Many other details of how the pay-for-performance system would work are yet to be determined.
Whether the rules retain meaningful rights for unions, which represent about 40 percent of the department's 180,000 employees.
The rules preclude bargaining over such issues as the introduction of new technology, the procedures to carry out agency operations, and the numbers, types and grades of employees or positions. In some circumstances, unions would retain the right to negotiate over local changes in working conditions and selection, promotion, discipline or layoff of employees. The department would have to confer with unions over certain other procedures, but management would have the final word.
The rules also would create an internal labor relations board that would decide disputes over whether management met its reduced duties to bargain. The outside Federal Labor Relations Authority could review those decisions and also would remain in control of union elections and unfair labor practice complaints filed by employees.
Whether employees will get a fair shake in disciplinary proceedings.
The rules allow the department to create a list of offenses for which firing will be mandatory, with review only by an internal agency board. For other disciplinary actions, employees will retain the right to appeal to the outside Merit Systems Protection Board, although that appeals process would be truncated.
As part of that change, management would have to clear a higher legal hurdle when taking disciplinary actions based on poor performance. However, MSPB would have less authority to reduce penalties when, for example, it upholds some but not all of the charges against an employee.
Diary associate Eric Yoder contributed to this column.