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Federal Diary: Federalizing security contactors might make our country safer

By Joe Davidson
Friday, January 29, 2010; A20

It should be a no-brainer to declare certain duties "inherently governmental" work that is restricted to federal employees, rather than outside contractors. Guarding Uncle Sam's nuclear goodies would seem to fall squarely in that category.

But a draft Government Accountability Office report shows just how difficult converting contract workers to federal employees can be and provides a lesson for the Obama administration, which is considering plans to bring some outside jobs back into the government.

The report examines the complex situation involving security at six Energy Department sites with "special nuclear material." The sites themselves are run by outside contractors, but that's another story.

The material is special because it's so dangerous. It's the department's highest security risk. The plutonium and highly enriched uranium is used in nuclear weapons and also can be formed into a dirty bomb. The potential for sabotage cannot be ignored.

The question is, what is the best way for Sam to protect the material?

It's a question that has been examined in one report after another since 1992.

"It's about time that DOE fixes this problem," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "It has been studied to death. . . . If DOE doesn't solve the problem satisfactorily, then the guard forces should be federalized."

GAO doesn't tell Energy what to do but does say that Energy Secretary Steven Chu should "promptly develop implementation plans . . . to improve career longevity and retirement options," including federalization, for security officers.

While federalizing the force isn't the only option, one argument for it stands out: Federal workers can't strike.

That's not the case with the contractors, who are unionized. There was a 44-day strike at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Tex., in 2007. Striking can be an honorable and useful tool for workers, but not when they're guarding deadly goods.

"Unionized protective forces can strike when their collective bargaining agreement ends and may create security vulnerabilities at DOE's sites," says the report, which is scheduled to be released next week.

But the problems go deeper than that and demonstrate why the title of the report is "DOE Needs to Address Protective Forces' Personnel." "Contractor protective forces -- including 2,339 unionized officers and their 376 nonunionized supervisors -- are not uniformly managed, organized, staffed, trained, equipped, or compensated across the six DOE sites," GAO says. "These differences occur because protective forces operate under separate contracts and collective bargaining agreements at each site." Four companies provide protective services at the six sites in the GAO study.

Mike Stumbo, a Pantex security officer and president of the National Council of Security Police, says his organization favors federalization because it would help ensure the force maintains a "quality cycle of human capital."

What that means in plain English is that making the officers federal employees would allow them to retire after 20 years of service or move to less physically demanding jobs. And when it comes time to retire, federal retirement benefits easily beat those in the private security industry.

That encourages older employees to make way for younger ones, who can better keep up with the physical demands of the job. The physical standards are so tough, Stumbo said, that "men and women can't maintain it for 30 or 40 years. You just can't do it."

The standards are much higher, he stressed, than those found among "rent-a-cop police, and we certainly are not that."

But federalizing the force could bring problems of its own.

The biggest problem is the contract officers would not be guaranteed a federal job.

"Current members would have to compete for the new federal positions, and thus they risk not being hired," the report says. "Nonveteran members are particularly at risk because competition for federal security guard positions is restricted to those with veterans' preference, if they are available."

If they get the job, they could lose pay. The Office of Personnel Management told GAO that contractor officers moved into the federal service probably would fall into an employment category that does not provide early and enhanced retirement benefits. "Also, to reach federal pay rates that better approximate the contractor rates, transitioning contractor protective forces might have to wait many years," the report adds.

Stumbo says these problems could be fixed with legislation.

But "with health care and everything that's going on," he added, "we just haven't gotten on the radar."

Partners benefits

President Obama reiterated his support for legislation moving through the House and Senate that extends full domestic benefits to the partners of gay federal employees. On Thursday, a University of Tampa student asked Obama about his position on equal rights for same sex couples, noting that he had expressed support for a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" during his State of the Union Address.

"I think that we've got to -- we actually have an opportunity of passing a law that's been introduced in Congress right now, and my hope is this year we can get it done, just for federal employees and federal workers," Obama said. "A lot of companies, on their own, some of the best-run companies have adopted these same practices. I think it's the right thing to do, and it makes sense for us to take a leadership role in ensuring that people are treated the same."

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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