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VA workers denounce job reclassification

Marlon Askew, who works as an administrative support assistant at Veterans Affairs in Temple, Texas, bows his head for a moment of silence for U.S. military veterans killed in war as hundreds of Veterans Affairs workers, members of the American Federation of Government Employees, rally Wednesday in front of the White House. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Marlon Askew is a proud man.

A former Army sergeant, he served in Desert Storm/Desert Shield and wears a black cap with “Veteran” blazed across the front.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

His work with those in uniform didn’t stop after 14 years in the Army. Askew went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he is a telephone operator in Temple, Tex.

“If I won the lottery tomorrow,” he said, “I would still choose to work at the VA and continue to serve those who have served our country.”

Winning the lottery would be particularly handy now, because Askew said that opportunities to increase his income at work have been seriously undermined by a VA policy to downgrade some of its employees.

The department calls it the “Job Classification Modernization Initiative.”

A VA statement said the agency, working with the Office of Personnel Management, has begun “an effort to modernize, standardize and balance our job classification processes. This effort will result in new standardized position descriptions that better reflect the duties they perform.”

Workers had a simpler description: “Rip-off.”

On Wednesday, members of the American Federation of Government Employees, wearing red T-shirts, demonstrated in front of the VA’s Central Office before taking a short walk to Lafayette Square, across from the White House, to denounce the agency’s reclassification program.

“The VA recently downgraded me from a GS-5 to a GS-4,” Askew, 51, told the crowd. “The VA did not even have the decency to meet with me in person before downgrading me. After 16 years of service, I heard through a memo that this was happening to me.”

Whatever the merits of the “Job Classification Modernization Initiative,” the VA should know that some things — such as downgrading a worker’s classification — should be communicated through a person-to-person conversation. There are decent, respectful ways to treat employees in difficult situations.

Askew still would not have liked the news, but he probably would not feel as “incredibly disappointed” as he does at how the agency is treating him. Feelings like that can affect employee morale, and morale affects agency productivity and customer service. This should be HR 101.

VA spokeswoman Jo Schuda said the agency “held public meetings at VA medical centers to address employee questions and concerns.”

That’s good, but not good enough.

The VA “will continue to make every effort to minimize the number of individuals affected by these actions,” she said. “VA will continue to provide grade and pay retention to any impacted employees so they can maintain their current salaries.”

Askew’s pay will not be hit immediately, but he and others at the rally said the downgrades will limit chances for raises and reduce retirement income.

The union wants a moratorium on reclassifications.

“The agency has been unable to demonstrate that the lowest paid segment of the VA workforce should be the sole target of classification reviews and has yet to produce any evidence that the downgrades of VA support personnel will improve the functioning of the agency or its ability to serve veterans,” according to an AFGE statement.

“I am angry. I feel betrayed,” said Richard Fleming, another Army vet who has been with the VA for 20 years. He started in the kitchen at the VA hospital in Temple and is now a GS-5 surgical technician.

“Every single night, I keep asking myself the same questions over and over and over,” he said. “Why are they doing this? What have I done? What have my co-workers done to deserve this?”

Norton tries her hand

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has introduced a resolution supporting federal employees that might get a better reception than a similar measure introduced a few weeks earlier.

Last month, we wrote about a resolution introduced by Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.). It praises federal workers, but it also opposes any attempts to place additional limits on their compensation. They already are under a two-year freeze on their basic pay rates.

The compensation provisions in Clarke’s resolution doomed it even without a vote in the House, which is controlled by a Republican majority that has already voted to extend the freeze.

Although Norton’s resolution does not directly confront Republican positions, it does incorporate facts that have been used to counter GOP measures that would limit federal compensation and reduce the size of the workforce.

Her resolution says that on a per-capita basis, the workforce is much smaller today than it was 50 years ago, “with 92 residents for every Federal worker in the 1950s and 1960s to 145 residents for every Federal worker in 2011.”

She also points to statistics indicating that federal employees are significantly better educated than those in the private sector.

“Members have varying views on federal employment issues, but I believe all would agree that our civil service consists of highly qualified employees who often work under difficult conditions,” Norton said. “This resolution will remind the country and federal employees themselves that the efforts of the federal workforce on behalf of the American people are inherently valuable and wholly appreciated.”

For previous columns by Joe Davidson, visit Follow the Federal Diaryon Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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