Seniority loses its value for Pentagon work force

New job evaluations linked to pay, prospects

February 15, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

The Bush administration unveiled new regulations yesterday for thousands of Pentagon workers that it said would promote higher performance - but union leaders decried them as the first step toward diminished rights for the government's entire work force.

Under the proposed rules, raises would be based on annual performance evaluations from managers rather than seniority, and workers could face greater competition from outside applicants for promotions. Union leaders fear the employees would be more susceptible to managers' favoritism and have weaker procedures to protest demotions or firings.

The regulations represent one of the most sweeping overhauls of federal personnel regulations in a generation, affecting virtually every aspect of how the government hires, fires and pays its employees. Though limited initially to 750,000 workers at the Defense Department, administration officials made it clear they intend to eventually extend the changes if Congress approves. Similar rules were announced a year ago for the newer Department of Homeland Security.

The federal government is Maryland's largest employer.

The changes, scheduled to begin at the Pentagon in July, are designed to build a more efficient and better-managed workforce, the administration says.

Administration officials said the new system would ensure that high-performing employees are rewarded better than low-performers. Managers could adjust job duties quickly and hire specialists they need.

"The flexibility of hiring we're giving the Defense Department is to be able to compete with outside companies, especially in highly skilled occupations like scientists, engineers and specialists," said George Nesterczuk of the Office of Personnel Management, one of the authors of the regulations.

Under federal law, such procedures are first published in the Federal Register and then undergo a 90-day period of review by the public, unions and Congress. Congressional leaders have expressed support for the defense and homeland security department reforms, but have cautioned the administration not to expand too quickly.

Paul Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said: "This set of reforms is eventually going to extend to all federal employees, and many state and local governments will follow. It will be popping up in Baltimore and Maryland. The fact that the Feds are doing it lends support to those that believe that government employees at all levels should be managed in the tradition of private business."

Several unions that represent federal employees have filed a lawsuit against the government over the new rules. John Gage of Baltimore, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, worries that union members would fall victim to politically motivated firings, and that cuts would mean an overall reduction in pay.

Ed Casswell, 58, a 30-year civil servant from Woodbine, who works at the Woodlawn-based Social Security Administration, fears that a pay-for-performance system would destroy his financial security at a time when he most needs the job. Three of his four children will enter college between now and 2007.

If the changes reach Casswell, who purchases technology equipment for Social Security, he would be competing for raises from a limited pool.

"Why would I help out a co-worker when I know that if I don't, he'll be rated lower and that will potentially mean more money for me," Casswell said during a lunch-break telephone conversation. "It would be detrimental to morale."

The federal government employed 126,600 workers in Maryland in the second quarter of 2004 - more than 5 percent of the 2.4 million jobs in the state, said Mahlon Straszheim, chairman of the University of Maryland economics department.

If the system expanded to other agencies, Maryland's economy should not suffer because the government rarely initiates large layoffs, Straszheim said. But he expects higher turnover in positions that require less skill, and that each worker will feel more anxious about job security.

"In most cases, when workers see better performance rewarded, they perform better in the long run," said Paul Hanges, an organizational psychologist at the University of Maryland. "But if workers see raises based on favorites, or evaluations filled with biases or based on irrelevant criteria, it destroys the effectiveness. Workers will view their livelihood as ... threatened by a system they don't understand and don't trust."

Darryl Perkinson manages a staff of 15 trainers, who teach welders, electricians and other tradesmen how to build ships at Norfolk (Va.) Naval Shipyard.

Until now, he never had to worry about how his workers' evaluations would affect their retirement plans or their children's futures. But by the fall, he could be part of "Spiral 1.3" at the Department of Defense - one of the earliest groups to implement the new pay plan.

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