Tom Ridge got his biggest round of applause yesterday when he answered a question -- about retirement -- from a longtime Coast Guard employee.

To a large degree, the question symbolizes the fears of employees moving into the Department of Homeland Security and underscores the importance of quick and candid responses to employees worried about their careers.

The Coast Guard employee told Ridge that she was covered by the old Civil Service Retirement System and that "a lot of us are worried that we're going to get forced out before we're ready to retire or that you're going to change the retirement system on us."

Ridge quickly replied, "We don't want to force you out; we like experience, and we're not going to change the retirement system."

As the applause broke out, the employee responded with a "thank you."

Ridge, the president's choice to head the homeland department, took several questions from employees who are transferring to the new department at a "town hall" meeting, the first of several planned by his aides. Ridge faces a seemingly impossible task -- transforming 22 agencies into a unified force focused on reducing the nation's vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

The effort requires an energized workforce, and Ridge's team is striving to reassure employees. In that vein, workers from the U.S. Customs Service, the Border Patrol, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and other agencies who attended the session at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center were handed a somewhat unusual sheet of paper at the doors.

The paper, which listed a number of facts about the transition process, ended with a section called "Our Commitments to You."

Among the promises: "Current benefits will remain as they are. Civil service status, pay and position classification will remain for a year. You will be protected from improper political influence, reprisals against whistle-blowers and prohibited personnel practices. Paychecks will be distributed on time."

Asked what happens after the first year, Ridge said he would work with unions and other employee representatives to design a "contemporary" personnel system and hoped the one-year guarantee would alleviate some of the employee anxiety that is swirling around.

"We thought it was very, very important to try to reduce as much concern and anxiety as possible, to say, this is going to take awhile to do, we want to do it right, and so let's tell everybody: Your job is secure; your pay is secure; your benefits are secure until we meet with your representatives and try to work out, we think, a contemporary system that will be much better than the existing one."

Ridge acknowledged that he could not provide much in the way of reassuring detail on how the new personnel system will work and what it will mean for the more than 170,000 employees moving to the department. The department opens for business Jan. 24, and most agencies will transfer March 1. Aides hope to have a proposal on personnel changes ready for comment in June or July.

Ridge expressed optimism that he can pull the 22 agencies together. "We've done a pretty good job working separately protecting America," he said. "I think I can convince you we can do an even better job working together to protect America."

New Letter Carriers President William H. Young was sworn in as president of the 305,000-member National Association of Letter Carriers on Friday night. Young, 56, took over from Vincent R. Sombrotto, who did not seek another term after 24 years as union president.

In his remarks, Young noted that the U.S. Postal Service faces "an uncertain and arguably perilous future" because of electronic mail and e-commerce. The White House recently appointed a commission to examine postal operations and recommend changes. "You can be sure that we will bird-dog this commission because its recommendations, if carried out, could either save the Postal Service or bury it," Young said.

Federal Diary Live Please join me at noon today for a discussion of federal employee and retiree issues on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.

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