NSA's Unfairness and Other Matters

COMMENT

April 03, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

Nearly two years ago, the National Security Agency won praise for progressiveness and sensitivity to employee issues when it opened the state's largest work-site day care center. If only more employers would be so considerate of its workers' needs, many thought then. The Sun itself lauded NSA.

Can this then be the same NSA that is being investigated on two fronts for unfair employment practices?

A Pentagon inspector general has been exploring why NSA has one of the worst minority hiring and promotion records in the federal government, with only 11 percent of the work force comprised of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, compared to 27 percent in the federal government as a whole. His findings are due shortly.

And a year-old NSA inspector general's report concluded that "inequitable treatment of significant numbers" of employees -- 98 to 99 percent of them women -- has occurred. Workers who accepted part-time work, usually for child care reasons, with the assurance from NSA that they could reapply for full-time vacancies have been denied that opportunity without explanation. NSA's position: Budget constraints made it necessary to change the rules about converting part-time workers to full-time.

Maybe so; NSA is, after all, under mandate to cut its 38,000- to 52,000-member work force 17.5 percent by 1997. But even if the agency had legitimate reasons for failing to convert these

workers to full-time status, there is no excuse for the way it handled them and treated their subsequent complaints.

Why didn't someone explain to the part-time workers why they could not re-apply for full-time positions? These people had no idea why they were being denied.

Why were men with fewer qualifications than some of the part-time women hired to fill vacancies? NSA says it was hiring only workers with special skills -- math, computer science, engineering, languages -- but it is hard to believe that of the hundreds of affected part-time workers, some who had been with agency for years, none possessed these abilities.

Why did the NSA's Equal Employment Opportunity Office seem not to take the part-time workers' complaints seriously? Apparently these complaints were not the first the office had delayed or shrugged off.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that at one point NSA was taking an average of 817 days -- 2 1/3 years -- to resolve a complaint, the sixth longest of 66 federal agencies surveyed. Sen. Barbara Mikulski reported that employees told her they feared reprisals for filing complaints.

Why is NSA such a hotbed of employment problems? The answer probably lies in the ultra-secretive nature of the place.

That shroud of darkness makes it easier for NSA to conceal faulty hiring practices and harder for anyone to find out about it. Reporters can't even ask NSA officials questions over the phone: They have to fax their inquiries, then wait for a printed statement that is incomplete as often as not.

The NSA's raison d'etre makes a large degree of secrecy both necessary and unavoidable. But using that secrecy to get away with mistreating employees is wrong. NSA is probably the largest employer in the state, and it should be required to do better -- a lot better -- than it has done in the past.

*

Milli Stansbury of West River writes that the American Day Treatment Center for the mentally ill, which I wrote about last week, is not the first such treatment center in Anne Arundel, as ADTC's press release indicated. The release said, "Annapolis-based firm opens first mental health day treatment center in Anne Arundel County."

In fact, what ATDC meant was that its new Pasadena office is its first center in the county, not the first one. It's not hard, however, to see how Ms. Stansbury misunderstood.

She was the former program coordinator of the now-defunct Annapolis Day Treatment Center on Forest Drive, once run by the county health department.

To those with reservations about living and working near the mentally ill, she writes: "Our neighbors in that office building suffered more from our Christmas caroling at their doors than from any other real or imagined behaviors" from the mental health clients.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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