Reconsider Workplace Rule Changes for Homeland Security, Lieberman Urges
By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, May 26, 2004; Page B02
A Senate Democrat who played a key role in the debate over whether to create a Department of Homeland Security has written the Bush administration to express his "serious concerns" about proposed regulations to overhaul workplace rules for most of the department's employees.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, urged the administration to reconsider the proposed regulations, which he said could "undermine the employee safeguards that prevent arbitrary and abusive workplace practices and that sustain the employee morale and performance on which the department's mission depends."
Lieberman listed his concerns in a 10-page letter last week to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James. Ridge and James hope to issue a final regulation by year's end that would make far-reaching changes in the department's management systems for pay and promotions, disciplinary appeals and union representation. The changes would affect about 110,000 employees.
With his letter, Lieberman becomes the most recent member of Congress to weigh in on the administration's plan. Over the last two months, several Democrats have sent or joined in letters to Ridge and James, including Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) and Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii) and Reps. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.) and Danny K. Davis (Ill.).
Their comments among the more than 3,500 filed at a docket set up to receive feedback from the public, federal employees and their organizations. The turnout at the docket is one of the largest for a proposed regulation affecting the government's in-house personnel practices, an administration official said.
Lieberman sounds a theme common to numerous criticisms filed at the docket -- that the proposed regulations are too vague about how the department intends to establish a new pay system and the rating system to link pay decisions to the job performance of employees.
The proposed regulation, Lieberman said, says that the department "may establish" broad salary ranges for occupations. In creating a pay system, the proposed regulation says the department must include "policies" on setting pay and raising pay and "may issue internal implementing regulations that establish one or more performance management systems," Lieberman said.
But, he added, "without knowing the policies and procedures that will be applied, it is impossible to judge whether the system will further the department's mission or will actually impede it."
For example, Lieberman wrote, "if the system for establishing pay levels is not seen as competitive, predictable and non-discriminatory, recruitment and retention may suffer."
Without a clear method of evaluating employees, Lieberman added, the department may find itself fostering the perception, if not the reality, "of management favoritism and abuse."
An official at the Department of Homeland Security said the comments of House and Senate members "are very important; they authorized this and represent employees in the larger sense." The official said special consideration also is being given to comments submitted by major unions.
The proposed regulations were designed to provide a framework, rather than specific details, so that the department can make adjustments during roll out and implementation phases without having to stop and rewrite regulations, the official said.
"We want to take into consideration lessons learned as we go along," the official said.
FEGLI Open Season
The Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance Program will hold its first open season in five years, starting Sept. 1 and ending Sept. 30, OPM announced yesterday.
The open season marks the program's 50th anniversary and is being sponsored by OPM as a reminder to employees to re-evaluate their need for life insurance.
During the open season, employees will be able to enroll or increase or change their insurance coverage without having a physical or answering questions about their health, OPM said.
The earliest that newly selected coverage will be effective is Sept. 1, 2005, OPM said.
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