Study Group Supports Ordering Agency Workers to Iraq

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Federal agencies supporting the Iraq war and reconstruction should order their civilian employees to fill key jobs in the combat zone if not enough volunteers step forward, a high-level commission said in a report presented to the president and Congress yesterday.

The recommendation by the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James A. Baker III, a former secretary of state, and Lee H. Hamilton, a former House member, grew out of a sense that civilian agencies are not contributing enough personnel to Iraq, adding to the burdens on the U.S. military.

The group offered little detail on the staffing recommendation. In general, the State and Defense departments have been able to recruit volunteers to work in Iraq and Afghanistan, though violence has curtailed their movement. But the report clearly envisions a closer relationship between civilian and military personnel, with one recommendation calling on civilian agencies to train for and conduct joint operations with the military.

Although federal agencies can reassign employees based on where they are needed, it is rarely done. Unions discourage forced reassignments and, at many agencies, only senior federal executives are at any real risk of such transfers because they are seen as a mobile part of the government's workforce.

"This would be somewhat unprecedented," said John Palguta, a longtime federal personnel expert and a vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "I am not aware of any civilian agency that has used directed reassignments to send employees to support an area of conflict."

The Iraq Study Group's report acknowledges that non-defense agencies "have little experience with complex overseas interventions to restore and maintain order," especially in a dangerous setting like Iraq.

But, the report says, "the United States has had great difficulty filling civilian assignments in Iraq with sufficient numbers of properly trained personnel at the appropriate rank."

If the government in the short term is unable "to fill key positions in Iraq, civilian agencies must fill those positions with directed assignments," the report recommends.

Such orders, also called "directed reassignments," are typically used when an agency transfers a job to a different location, usually in the United States, and tells the civil service employee to move along with the job. Employees who balk risk losing their jobs.

The commission report says agencies should take steps "to mitigate familial or financial hardships posed by directed assignments," including tax exemptions on salaries similar to those provided to the military.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which has long expressed concern about how some agencies handle employees' temporary reassignments to duty stations far from their homes, declined to comment on the recommendation yesterday.

J. Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said a key issue in deploying civilians involves "the circumstances into which you are putting these people." For instance, he said, civilians probably cannot do their jobs in areas where security is dangerous but could carry out their duties in a post-conflict environment.

From a management perspective, "you want people to volunteer," he said. "They are far more productive and will be more successful in accomplishing their tasks."

Palguta said the commission's recommendation could be "a tough lift." He said, "Not many employees are going to be happy about being redirected to a war zone."

Postal Agreement

The largest post office union, the American Postal Workers Union, has reached a tentative four-year contract agreement with the U.S. Postal Service, officials announced yesterday.

The agreement covers 272,000 career employees, mostly clerks, who process mail and work at retail windows; building maintenance workers, who perform custodial, mechanical and electronic duties; and truck drivers and mechanics.

"We believe this tentative agreement is in the best interests of our customers, our employees and all postal stakeholders," said Doug Tulino, Postal Service vice president for labor relations.

The agency declined to provide information on changes in wages, benefits and working conditions for APWU members. "The tentative contract is in the hands of APWU leadership, and we will leave it to them to discuss details of the tentative agreement," said Dave Partenheimer, a Postal Service spokesman.

William Burrus, the APWU president, said terms of the agreement will be announced after the tentative contract is presented to representatives of rank-and-file employees. Burrus called the proposed contract "an outstanding agreement."

Contract talks with the Postal Service's other large union, the National Association of Letter Carriers, have broken down, and the two sides appear headed for binding arbitration.

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

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