T he Office of Personnel Management -- which sets hiring and employment standards for the government -- is reviewing its employees to ensure that they are suitable for jobs involving the "public trust."
OPM launched in-house probes this year after the agency's director, Kay Coles James, learned that some personnel files of OPM employees were missing or incomplete or had been destroyed, an aide said.
In a letter to the American Federation of Government Employees last month, James said she is "cleaning up internal issues that were neglected for over a decade. . . . For years some employees were hired and placed into jobs without having undergone a coordinated suitability review or reinvestigation process."
The public trust review, however, has drawn protests from AFGE Local 32, which represents OPM employees, and from individual employees who have worked at OPM for 20 or 30 years. The employees are being asked to undergo credit checks, have their fingerprints taken, and answer questions about divorces, overseas trips, run-ins with the law and other matters.
"It is causing a lot of anxiety among employees," said Carlos Brathwaite, first vice president at Local 32.
"A lot of employees are troubled by the prospect of someone at OPM getting their credit information," said John Zottoli, the Local 32 president. Employees who have been a month or two late in making debt payments are asking, "Does that mean I can get fired?" Zottoli said.
Doris Hausser, senior policy adviser to James, said the agency is "rolling out requests for information in waves" to employees. So far, about 400 of OPM's 3,500 employees have been asked to turn in paperwork for background checks, an OPM spokesman said.
Hausser said the employee reactions were understandable, but she added that investigators will be looking at an employee's "total picture" and that "there isn't any one thing that will necessarily put a suitability determination at risk." In instances where investigators turn up information that "could be called derogatory," employees will be given an opportunity to respond and put the information in context, she said.
OPM oversees personnel practices across the government, and James, during briefings after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, began asking if her agency faced any security issues and ordered an audit, Hausser said. Officials learned during the audit that some employee files could not be located and that some may have been inadvertently destroyed.
James "was determined to make sure OPM would be without peer in the quality of our personnel security program, so she directed that action be taken to bring [background] investigations up to date," Hausser said.
Over the past several months, OPM's Center for Security and Emergency Actions has been asking employees to fill out federal form 85P, the questionnaire for "public trust positions" and related paperwork, which takes about two hours.
Some employees have expressed concern that they may come under scrutiny because of unusual surnames, their race, a disability or their sexual orientation, Zottoli said.
Others think that the background checks are unnecessary because their job duties do not involve sensitive information or national security, he said.
The union and OPM officials met last week on ways to ease employee concerns and discussed a union proposal that would have supervisors become more involved in explaining to employees individually why the background checks are necessary.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is recruiting volunteer docents to conduct tours, provide information to visitors in exhibit halls and interact with visitors in the museum's Discovery Room, Insect Zoo and Leesburg Naturalist Center.
Docents, who will receive orientation and training from scientists and educators, may serve as few as two hours per week or on weekends. The positions are open to those 16 and older.
For information, go to www.mnh.si.edu/education and click on "volunteer opportunities" or call Magda Schremp at 202-633-1080.
The Thrift Savings Plan "open season," when federal employees may join or change their contributions, begins Oct. 15. To help you sort out investment options, Paul A. Yurachek, a certified financial planner, will take questions and comments at noon Wednesday on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. Please join us then or send a question in advance.