Pentagon officials and labor leaders get down to brass tacks this week.
The two groups will meet over a proposed regulation that would change the way about 746,000 civil service employees are paid, promoted and disciplined. The closed-door sessions will be held for at least 30 days, and Pentagon officials plan to bring in federal mediators at the start to help narrow differences.
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Some of the sticking points emerged last week in testimony before House and Senate committees, and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in particular, laid out concerns that they expect the Pentagon to address as it creates the new National Security Personnel System.
At times, the concerns of the senators tracked issues that were raised at the Senate hearing by John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees and spokesman for a coalition of 36 Defense unions, and Derek B. Stewart, a specialist in Defense management at the Government Accountability Office.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) sharply questioned how Defense proposes to handle employee appeals of "adverse actions," such as firings and demotions. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the Armed Services chairman, asked why the proposed regulation changes the traditional role of the Merit Systems Protection Board and would permit Defense to "overrule" the MSPB.
Defense's proposed regulation would prevent an MSPB judge from reducing an employee's penalty except if the punishment was "wholly without justification." In cases in which the punishment was reduced, the proposed regulation would require "the maximum justifiable penalty."
Collins said the Pentagon proposal "seems inconsistent" with the law authorizing the new personnel system. Levin called the proposal "harsh" and "extreme on its face," noting that even convicted criminals do not always face the maximum possible penalty.
In letters to the administration prior to the Armed Services hearing, Collins and Levin suggested that the Defense proposal should be modified to make it clear that the MSPB, which hears employee appeals, can and should consider other factors that might justify a lesser penalty, such as an employee's record, whether the offense was intentional or inadvertent and whether the punishment was in keeping with other penalties imposed for similar offenses.
Collins and Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) also urged the Pentagon to tighten the regulation so that employees "know what they are graded on and not graded on," as Talent put it.
Employees should have their disputes over job performance ratings, which would be used to help set pay raises, resolved as quickly as possible, Talent said. He also urged the department to show "commitment from the top," providing adequate money for training and bonuses.
Levin, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) faulted the Pentagon's plan to curtail union rights. Akaka said the NSPS "effectively eliminates collective bargaining by restricting bargaining over approximately 75 percent of current bargaining issues."
Kennedy asked whether the proposed regulation would prohibit unions from bargaining on overtime policy, deployments, work schedules and similar issues. Collins and Levin suggested that the Pentagon needs to find a way to ensure the independence of appointees to an internal labor relations board that will hear disputes between managers and unions and largely replace the Federal Labor Relations Authority, an independent agency that hears such cases.
The officials representing the Bush administration -- Gordon England, the Navy secretary, and Dan G. Blair, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management -- said they could not answer questions on bargaining rights because unions have filed a lawsuit to block that part of the NSPS.
England assured the senators that the Pentagon would take their advice seriously, that the standards used to judge employees would be set out in writing, that the department would act in accordance with underlying law on employee appeals and that the in-house labor board "will have independence."
Defense plans to provide 1 million hours of training for the initial stage of the NSPS, tentatively set to begin in July, England said. Managers will get at least 18 hours of training, and personnel specialists will get 40 hours of training, Blair said.
But England and Blair provided few concrete details on how the NSPS would operate in the workplace, and England suggested that the answers to many questions will hinge on how talks go between administration officials and union leaders.
"We don't know all the details," England said.