Workers wary of Homeland Security

U.S. employees ponder future as plans evolve

July 15, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Lester Johnson has seen presidents come and go, along with their big ideas for overhauling government, and he counts himself a survivor. A federal employee for more than half his 50 years, Johnson is what he and his fellow civil servants call one of the we-be's: We've been here before you, and we'll be here after you.

But these days, with a new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security in the works, Johnson is finally rattled. As Congress lays out plans to merge at least pieces of about two dozen agencies into one sprawling department, Johnson, a veteran of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, envisions his cozy workplace turning into chaos.

"It's going to be insane," said Johnson, who manages property for FEMA, predicting that infighting and job losses will accompany the new agency. "You're dealing with human beings, people used to being in charge, and they're not going to give up their power easily. There's going to be a lot of egos involved, a lot of squabbling."

And, perhaps, a lot of headaches. Many of the 170,000 federal workers who would become part of this department are fretting about their quality of life as Homeland Security employees.

The concerns of federal workers are small as well as large: Will they have to wear a uniform, and will it be ugly? Will they be bumped out of line for raises and promotions they were expecting from their former agencies? Will they face an awful commute or an obnoxious new boss? Will their jobs even exist?

President Bush called for the creation of the department to try to prevent intelligence failures in the war on terrorism and to strengthen the response to any future attacks. His goal is to tighten security at seaports, borders and airports by putting such entities as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration under one command.

At least at first, the workers are expected to remain in their current roles and offices and report to a "virtual department." But the White House wants a distinct identity for this agency. So besides creating a Homeland Security flag and seal, the administration is considering eventually building an expansive headquarters.

Just as the new Transportation Security Administration that was created after Sept. 11 to protect air travelers draws inspiration from fighting terrorism - its logo evokes the attacks with nine stars and 11 stripes - the Homeland Security Department is invoking patriotism.

"There is an overriding and urgent mission here in America today, and that's to protect our homeland," Bush told about 3,000 federal workers in a rally for the new agency last week. "We've been called into action, and we've got to act."

In a commuter van outside Coast Guard headquarters, a handful of employees heading home to Howard County sounded ready for the challenge. From her seat, Sandra Hallmark said, "Our mission is not only to defend our land but to save money - we'll get even more efficient."

Asked who was anxious about the changes, the driver, Edward Urbany, said, "Only the neurotics."

At other agencies, some see a career-burnishing opportunity.

"Actually, I might get a better deal out of it," said Steve Hughes, a FEMA contract worker who hopes the changes score him a steady job. "Something permanent. That'd be nice."

But anxiety is palpable elsewhere. If support staff from 22 agencies are put under one roof, it's inevitable that office jobs - secretaries, lawyers, support staff - would be duplicated. Workers assume, then, that some would be laid off.

"I've lost sleep over this," said Mary Elizabeth McLoughlin, a Customs Service lawyer and a member of the National Treasury Employees Union. "Is there going to be one general counsel's office, so every lawyer who worked for all the different agencies is going to have to compete now for one position there?"

She also wondered whether creating the third-largest Cabinet department - expected to be exceeded only by Defense and Veterans Affairs - will so distract the anti-terrorism work force that, at least at the start, it will have little value.

"Spending all our time thinking about the new department doesn't get more containers inspected or more cases closed," said McLoughlin, who has worked at customs for a decade. "Let's have an immediate effect on homeland security. Let's not rearrange boxes on an organizational chart."

Some workers simply mistrust Bush's plan: The administration has said the new agency must be able to hire and fire workers at will because national defense is involved. It did not guarantee to preserve the workers' civil-service protections, such as their right to create a new union.

Members of Congress are debating this aspect of the plan and others, as House and Senate committees begin drafting their versions of legislation to create the department.

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