NSA drops plan of hiring contract staff

At security agency, layoffs were eyed for maintenance division

Up to 400 jobs saved

About 200 who feared dismissal retired, say staff members

January 19, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The National Security Agency has scrapped a proposal to farm out building maintenance jobs to private contractors, averting what might have been hundreds of layoffs at the super-secret eavesdropping agency.

NSA officials said that so many maintenance workers took early retirement packages during the past two months - some for fear of losing their jobs - that the agency no longer needs to consider hiring an outside company to affordably maintain its pipes, toilets, ventilation systems and electrical supply.

The agency issued a brief statement yesterday that offered few details about the decision. But two maintenance workers said during interviews that the agency concluded it would be cheaper to keep its remaining work force than to pay severance and hire a private contractor.

The decision eased workers' anxiety about what would have been the first layoffs in NSA history. And it saves up to 400 jobs at the sprawling Fort Meade agency, one of the state's largest employers. The agency has shifted into high gear since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 to zero in on the whereabouts of al-Qaida leaders and to gather intelligence to head off further terrorist acts.

The move is the agency's first retreat from a widely publicized push to outsource nonsensitive jobs to private contractors. In 2000, the agency decided to focus more closely on its core missions of eavesdropping on foreign countries and protecting sensitive U.S. government information - a response in part to budgetary pressures of a pre-Sept. 11 world in which some viewed the agency as a Cold War relic.

Agency leaders have said that outside companies could be more efficient, cheaper, and more in step with new technology. But unlike the agency's Project Groundbreaker program to shift 600 computer jobs to outside companies, the maintenance-work proposal did not promise displaced workers jobs in the private sector.

The proposal rankled workers in the Installations and Logistics division, as the maintenance arm is called. Many have worked at the agency for more than a decade. Though they are pipe-fitters, electricians and plumbers, many said they derive a sense of civic duty from their high-level security clearances. After The Sun published an article about the proposal in November, many of those workers contacted state lawmakers and Congress members, who in turn wrote NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden to complain.

A memo dated Nov. 7 makes clear that the NSA had planned to eliminate the jobs of those who did not leave voluntarily. "A [reduction in force] will be conducted ... if employees do not otherwise leave the Agency between now and full contract implementation," reads the memo from Patricia Cox White, an associate general counsel.

Workers in NSA's maintenance division, which employees estimate is 700 strong, are responsible for upkeep at the 650-acre complex. Employees said they learned that the agency planned to keep their jobs in-house a little more than a week ago, when the division chief, John Doody, addressed them in an NSA auditorium.

Effect on morale

The two maintenance workers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by an agency that takes a dim view of most publicity. They said that roughly 200 co-workers took the agency's early retirement offer in recent months. And they said that the cost of hiring outside contractors was higher than the agency had expected.

Doody, said one worker, "came out saying there was no money to contract out."

The employees said that the agency has not ruled out giving maintenance work to contractors in the future. During the past few months, with the threat of layoffs dangling, many workers had begun searching for other jobs. Workplace morale sank, and some employees refused to answer maintenance calls.

Although pleased to keep their jobs, the two employees said, many workers felt mistreated by an agency to which they had devoted their careers. "They played with your life, they played with your livelihood, they played with the gallon of milk my kid's going to be drinking next week," said one worker. "Who do they think they are to play with the lives of 400 to 600 people?"

The NSA had said that layoffs are always a last resort, one it had said it would use in June if too few people left voluntarily.

`It's a tactic'

A congressional source familiar with the issue said that the agency's mention of layoffs was intended in part to persuade a sufficient number of employees to leave voluntarily.

"It's a tactic," the source said. "That has the effect of scaring the heck out of people." A spokeswoman refused to confirm the number of maintenance workers who took early retirement packages, saying the employees' estimate of 200 was "not official numbers from the agency."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who disclosed the agency's decision against outsourcing in a news release yesterday, said in a statement that farming out maintenance jobs would have jeopardized security without saving taxpayers money.

"Replacing dedicated public servants with contractors just doesn't make sense," she said in the statement.

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