Bill aims to crimp political jobsWASHINGTON -- Sen...

Newswatch...on federal workers

July 31, 1991|By Kate McKenna | Kate McKenna,States News Service

Bill aims to crimp political jobs

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., teamed up this week with Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and other senators to push legislation protecting senior federal employees threatened with reduc-tions in force (RIFs) -- especially in connection with possible political appointments.

Pointing to examples of government workers laid off for budget reasons, only to later discover that their jobs had been filled by political appointees, Mikulski says her bill would prevent any such incidents.

Introduced Monday, the bill would prevent RIFs from being used to replace career civil servants with political employees, or to replace full-time professionals with temporary contractual employees who don't have job security, health benefits or pensions.

"My legislation sends a message that Congress cares about these workers and will fight for their jobs," says Mikulski. "Reductions in force should be used only when budgets dictate staff cutbacks. No other reason is acceptable."

Mikulski's office says the experience of Bethesda resident Mark Sheehan, whose U.S. Justice Department office of GS-14s and GS-15s was closed for fiscal reasons in 1989, was one good example of the kind of problem the legislation seeks to prevent. Although everyone was told to find other jobs, Sheehan says he now knows the division was not permanently closed.

"There were four political people brought in later, over a period of four months," says Sheehan, who has worked in the public information office of the Justice Department and now is an attorney at a trade association.

In a statement announcing the legislation, Mikulski said, "This is a matter of fairness . . . Dedicated public employees deserve protection from arbitrary or politically motivated layoffs."

The legislation also would offer the first right of refusal to those employees who were laid off and whose jobs are restored within two years.

Introduced by Mikulski, the bill drew co-sponsors in Sarbanes; Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill.; Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz.; and Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif. More than 75 percent of nearly 2,000 federal and D.C. government workers surveyed think they're breathing bad air at their workplace, according to testimony given before a recent House hearing on health and safety.

Two years after first testifying in favor of a bill to improve air quality, David Schlein, American Federation of Government Employees national vice president, told members of the House Education and Labor health and safety subcommittee the problem of unhealthy workplaces still gets little respect and attention from the government or from management.

Schlein also spoke of a recent survey conducted by the Safe Workplace Air Coalition, which found that more than 90 percent of the 2,000 workers surveyed said they experienced symptoms associated with poor indoor-air quality. The respondents noted that the problems disappear when they leave their office buildings, he said.

"In addition, the majority of those surveyed indicated that they believe their ailments hamper their job performances; more than 47 percent said they have lost time from work because of their symptoms," said Schlein. The survey will be expanded within the next year to include 170,000 AFGE members nationwide, he said.

The health and safety panel is wrapping up a series of hearings on the Indoor Air Quality Act of 1991. The final hearing on the bill was scheduled for today.

Victims of "sick-building syndrome" pose another problem for workers seeking compensation, due to the complexity of the gases and other varieties of bad air blamed for their illnesses, Schlein said.

"This is because administrators of the Federal Employees Compensation Act still cling to the fiction that chemical diseases are compensable only if caused by a single agent," he said.

"Meanwhile, most victims of indoor-air diseases suffer from multiple exposure from a host of substances, such as pesticides, solvent fumes and off gases from paints, rugs and furniture."

Also testifying in favor of the bill was James N. Ellenberger, the AFL-CIO's assistant secretary of occupational safety and health.

While supportive of the Indoor Air Quality Act, Ellenberger said such issues would better be handled, not by the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Bethesda.

Pleading for honoraria:

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia heard arguments yesterday against barring government employees from receiving "honoraria" -- payments for off-duty, non-government writing or speech-making.

The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is challenging the constitutionality of the Ethics Reform Act statute, which took effect in January. Attorneys for the union will argue that the law is arbitrary and violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

"Off-duty practices that employees have engaged in for years and have caused no ethical problems are suddenly taboo," said NTEU President Robert Tobias, speaking before the Senate Governmental Affairs panel shortly after the ban commenced.

Tobias also called the bill "counterproductive" and "a mistake," adding that the head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics had called the ban unnecessary.

The union is asking the court to declare Title VI of the law unconstitutional insofar as it prohibits federal workers from accepting payment for an appearance, speech or article, and subjects them to civil penalties for receiving such honoraria.

Ruling on the NTEU appeal could come this week.

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