Homeland Security Pay Plan Goes Forward, but Unions Are Wary

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security is moving ahead with its plan to change how it evaluates and pays employees, even as it tries to fend off unions in court.

The pay changes and the court case are separate issues, but the union litigation has altered the department's timetable and injected some uncertainty into how far Homeland Security can go in changing some key workplace rules.

Gregg Prillaman , chief human capital officer at the department, said the litigation "has essentially compressed" the schedule for converting employees from the traditional civil service system, the decades-old General Schedule, to a performance-based system. "Instead of moving people onto it quicker, it is going to be slightly slower," he said.

The litigation is scheduled to resume tomorrow, when the unions, led by the National Treasury Employees Union, and the government make oral arguments before a federal appeals court.

The NTEU, contending that the new rules would gut collective bargaining in the department, won the first round last August. U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled that the department's plan would put the unions on "quicksand" when trying to negotiate the terms of contracts, and she blocked new labor-management rules.

Although the unions have focused their legal efforts on stopping the department's new work rules, they also are wary of the new pay system, contending that the government has a poor track record in creating performance-based management systems that are viewed as fair and credible by workers.

The Bush administration, however, thinks the across-the-board raises provided through the General Schedule do not permit agencies to make distinctions among employees and thwart efforts to give higher raises to top performers.

In keeping with a 2002 law, Homeland Security is designing a pay system that will provide employees with raises more closely tied to their occupations and geographic location. The best workers will also receive higher raises that reflect their job performance. Employees who are deemed unsatisfactory will be at risk of not getting a raise.

The new pay system, when in place, will cover as many as 85,000 civil service employees, with a substantial number in jobs related to law enforcement. One goal of the new system is to more rigorously link annual pay raises to job performance ratings.

The initial rollout will involve 18,000 to 20,000 employees who are not covered by union contracts. Under the plan, managers, supervisors and nonunion employees will move to a new pay system, featuring broad salary scales based on occupations, next January.

In the second phase, 60,000 to 65,000 employees, including most employees covered by union contracts, will convert to the new pay system in January 2008.

Prillaman said that about 2,000 Homeland Security managers have received training on a new system for evaluating the job performance of employees and that up to 5,000 additional managers will be trained.

"The plan is not to go out and do massive harm to employees of this department. Quite the contrary," Prillaman said. "It is to give them a clearer picture of how they succeed and better recognition for that success. It is not a Machiavellian plot.

"In the end, the department's goal is the same as the employees' goal," he said. "You want to be able to have high-quality people in the organization who succeed in their job and want to stay for the long run. That is what employees want, and that is what the department wants."

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Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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