FEDERAL WORKERS labor under one of the most generous and reliable pay systems in the world.
Every year, most employees rise up the pay scale, notch after notch. Once they hit a ceiling, a promotion or Congress' annual across-the-board raise keeps them going.
It is a bargain that builds stability - others call it stagnation - and it is one that President Bush is pushing hard to end.
But on Monday, a federal judge in Washington could deliver the president his first major setback - or put his broad reforms in motion. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer is expected to rule on the legality of the most contested portion of those rules, the part telling unions to butt out.
No matter the outcome, Collyer's decision will spur appeals. But if she rules in the president's favor - and unions don't win a delay while they appeal - employees at the Department of Homeland Security will begin switching Monday to a new pay system. It would give managers more flexibility in setting pay scales and awarding performance-based raises.
It also would mark the beginning of the end of the General Schedule - the mechanized pay system known by the abbreviation "GS" - which unions say buffers their members from the politically motivated whims of top appointees.
Unions warn a ruling in Bush's favor will make it easier for managers to fire people and reduce union control over everything.
"A favorable decision would be of major significance, not just for DHS but for all federal employees," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, who is leading the legal challenge. "Restricting collective bargaining rights and limiting employee appeal rights in any segment of the federal sector sets harmful precedent."
Drafts of legislation extending the proposed changes to all federal agencies are circulating on Capitol Hill.
The debate is dominated by voices such as Kelley's and by high-ranking federal officials. Frontline workers are often afraid of retribution for publicly expressing doubts or support for pay for performance, which was attempted under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and failed.
But privately, workers worry that the system could to lead to favoritism in setting workers' pay, longer hours and a work force more cautious about expressing dissent.
Some line managers remain cautiously optimistic.
"There is some hope and some trepidation," said Anthony Pezza, district manager of the Hackensack, N.J., Social Security Administration office, who has worked for the agency long enough to remember earlier attempts at personnel reform. "In principle it sounds good, but we'll be in a better position to analyze it once it's evolved a bit more."
Moving to `direct-hire'
Federal agencies soon will have greater authority to hire people in the business of buying things for the government without going through the usual red tape, according to policies published in the Federal Register late last week.
If an agency wants to use "direct-hire authority," it would declare that a shortage or critical need exists and then keep proof of it, such as details on previous efforts to fill the job or a need to hit a looming hiring deadline for a new program. The Office of Personnel Management wouldn't have to sign off on it.
Under normal circumstances, agencies must rate and rank candidates, either numerically or in groups, using a very structured and lengthy process.
In a shortage situation, the hiring process may take just as long, but that time wouldn't be spent on paperwork. Instead, the time would be spent finding qualified candidates, of which there should be few. Veterans also wouldn't be guaranteed preference. The authority for procurement jobs facing shortages expires in 2007.
So far, 614 jobs in other categories have been filled using direct-hire authority from Oct. 1 through March, OPM officials said. Managers at the Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services used the authority to ramp up hiring for the rollout of Bush's prescription drug benefit.
"It's another tool in the toolbox," said Dan Fusco, who manages workers who develop recruitment policy at OPM.
Members of Congress expressed concerns this week about federal retirees making do with several months of smaller pension payments while waiting for the amount of their full benefit to be calculated.
Bill Ferguson, president of the Laurel chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE), said that workers are warned of the delays and are later reimbursed for the discrepancy - albeit without interest.
When Ferguson retired from the Department of Defense five years ago, he was assigned a retirement counselor, who reviewed his work history, asked whether he wanted his spouse to receive pension payments after his death and made sure his beneficiary information was accurate.