Federal employe unions, associations and several members of Congress yesterday harshly criticized the Reagan administration's plan to abolish automatic "in-step" increases for federal workers and to link pay and job security more closely to job performance.
Several groups said they liked the "concept of performance pay," but were concerned that performance rating systems, which the administration proposes to use to set pay raises, could be manipulated too easily by political appointees.
The groups also claimed that the government's current performance pay system, which applies to top government managers, does not work, and contended that it was foolish to extend the troubled program to an additional 1.4 million workers.
The strongest criticism yesterday came from Kenneth C. Blaylock, president of the nation's largest federal employe union, the American Federation of Government Employes, who said the administration's sweeping proposal would "replace the Civil Service system with one of political patronage."
Other critics, including Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), said the administration's four-pronged proposal, made public Tuesday by Office of Personnel Management Director Donald J. Devine, was ill-conceived.
Since October, 1981, federal workers with management responsibilities (GS13 to GS15) have been required to obtain a high performance rating before they qualify for a merit increase, Wolf said.
"That system is in shambles . . .it's a chaotic mess," he said. "To extend that system to the rest of the government only shows that Devine is not in touch with reality . . . . "
The administration's plan would require mid- and low-level federal workers to meet tougher job performance standards before receiving in-step increases.
Money that would have gone for the automatic increases would be put into a pool and divided among employes who are rated by their supervisors as being the best performers.
Employe groups said they were concerned that OPM's proposal could be abused easily by political appointees. Under the proposal an employe would not be told what rating he had received from his supervisor until it had been approved by "a higher-level reviewer." The proposed rules also would prohibit employes from appealing a performance rating.
Since the Civil Service Act was revised in 1978, there have been many "blatant examples of political manipulation of performance appraisals," Blair Childs, vice president of the Senior Executive Association, said yesterday.
Childs cited as one example the Department of Energy, where the Merit System Protection Board's special counsel recently contended that he had reason to believe DOE officials used performance ratings to lay off 19 senior executives. The OPM is investigating that case.
Lisa Carlson, president of the Professional Managers Association, which represents federal managers now under the performance pay guidelines, said the government lacks experience in developing job performance standards.
"As a result, many times the rating is not based on performance but on cooperation with political appointees," she said.
Once funds for pay increases were put into a pool, Congress also might be tempted to restrict its use, as it did with the current bonus system for senior executives, she said.
Union officials also expressed outrage at the OPM's proposed "management rights clarification" which would give the agency the power to define what is an "appropriate" bargaining issue for federal employe unions.
The OPM's list of non-negotiable items included "any matter which prevents management from exercising any of its rights." Unions would be allowed, on a "consultation" basis, to discuss such things as "energy conservation and commuting programs, internal newsletters and programs to reduce absenteeism."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) yesterday called on Devine to withdraw the proposals, saying they represented "major policy shifts" and should be submitted to Congress for legislative consideration.
A spokesman for Devine, however, said federal workers had nothing to fear from the proposal, which could take effect within 60 days.