In an attempt to calm fears that 130 General Services Administration employes may lose their jobs, GSA chief Gerald P. Carmen paid an unscheduled visit to the Franconia Stores Depot last week to praise workers' performance.
"If we're all productive every day, we shouldn't go home every night and worry about our jobs," Carmen told the employes.
Carmen's visit was prompted by the fears of many depot employes that they might lose their jobs if the GSA goes ahead with plans to contract with private firms to do work at Franconia in an effort to save money.
The GSA plans had been reported in The Virginia Weekly of March 16.
"The people here were scared," said David Shapiro, GSA's distribution branch chief. "The very fact that he Carmen came down gave the employes a big boost."
What it comes down to, according to Dennis C. Blaeuer, assistant regional administrator for GSA's office of Federal Supply and Services, is that the employes could head off the hiring of a contractor and the loss of their jobs if they can improve their work performance and demonstrate that it would be cheaper for GSA to keep them than to pay a contractor.
"We believe we have the right to tell them to do a better job than they are doing or it is likely that a contractor will take over their jobs," Blaeuer said.
In a letter circulated to employes, Blaeuer said, "Please be assured that by your continued improvement your opportunity to be successful in the competition is increased."
A GSA spokesman said that, in roughly seven out of every 10 cases, the government has found that it is cheaper to do a job by contract that to use federal employes.
Carmen said that, although he could not project how this evaluation would turn out, the employes could increase their chances of keeping the work in federal hands by continuing to improve their work performance.
GSA had gone so far as to solicit proposals last year from contractors that included cost estimates. But before the bids could be evaluated, developments forced a delay. The problems weren't resolved until earlier this month.
Now GSA says that within three weeks it will begin to mail notices of those changes to firms that had submitted proposals, giving them 30 days to respond to the changes. The GSA then will take from one to two months more to review the proposals still remaining, according to Rodgers Stewart, a GSA regional spokesman.
That means that a decision as to whether employes will be displaced could be delayed until mid-June or July.
Carmen decided to make the impromptu visit to correct any "mistaken impressions," a spokesman said. At the facility, he took a bullhorn, mounted a forklift and thanked the employes for helping the agency to improve significantly the operations at the facility over the past two years.
Despite the visit, however, employe morale at the facility is low, according to several workers at the warehouse who asked that their names not be used.
"We're like prisoners sitting on death row," said one foreman with 18 years' experience at Franconia. "We're being threatened all the time to perform better. But the biggest problem is the mental stress from not knowing for so long whether a contractor will be running the plant or you'll be able to keep your government job."
An employe who called The Washington Post said that although "it may be illegal, some employes are talking about a strike."
"No one is being threatened," countered William F. Walsh, GSA's facility manager. He said he had heard "talk" about striking but did not think it was widespread.
"I have told my employes repeatedly that working for the government forbids them from striking . . . unless they want to go the route of the air traffic controllers," Walsh said, referring to the unionized federal employes who were fired two years ago after going on strike against the government.
Walsh said "the government is out to save money, naturally, and if we can do it as cheap as the other fellow, we should get to keep it the money saved . If I were in the employes' position, I would want to do the best I could."
Raymond Tillman, bulk selection chief, said Carmen's visit was "a morale booster for the people. It's important when government officials in as high an office as he is take the time to come down here."
Tillman, who supervises 30 people, said morale is "generally good" until talk turns to the possibility of a contractor.
"We know what it takes for us to win against the contractors' bid ," said shipping chief Willie Stewart: "Performance."