Pentagon likely to feel effects of new pay rules first


September 09, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

DEFENSE DEPARTMENT employees, including thousands in Maryland and Washington, are likely to be the first to feel the financial impact of new federal workplace rules after the Department of Homeland Security announced this week a one-year delay in its pay reforms.

Nonunion workers and managers at Homeland Security headquarters, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be part of the first wave of reforms, which will tie pay to performance beginning with their raises in 2008, based on their work and their annual evaluations for the previous year.

"Let's work to get it right and start at the top," said Clay Johnson III, a deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget who is leading the president's civil service overhaul. "We want to demonstrate to rank-and-file employees that our senior people, our good managers, can set the tone, the right way it should be done before we start tying pay to it."

Nearly 60,000 defense employees, including more than 4,100 at the Washington Navy Yard and Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County, will be a year ahead of them.

A recent court ruling blocking portions of Homeland Security's plan because it failed to guarantee collective bargaining rights has put the new agency on shakier ground than the Defense Department, where similar changes have not encountered legal barriers and where front-line workers will be part of the first round of changes.

Johnson said the Pentagon can be more aggressive because, unlike Homeland Security, the Defense Department is "not the result of a recent merger of 22 different agencies and has better personnel practices in place and a history to build on," including pilot projects that started in the early 1980s.

The White House long has argued that pay should not be tied to longevity and that managers need the flexibility to offer generous salaries if the country is to respond nimbly to terrorists and natural disasters with the most capable work force.

Experts also have pointed out that today's government is far different from that of the late 1940s, when the framework for pay, the 15-grade General Schedule, began. At that time, most government workers were clerks who did similar work.

In 1950, more than one-third of employees worked in Grade 3 or below. More than 50 years later, about 40 percent of employees work in Grade 12 or higher, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

"Most managers I have spoken to have said that it will be hard to change, but we need to change," Johnson said. "When we paint a picture of the way government could work under these reforms, unions generally agree it's a positive vision to aspire to, but they either question our motives or our ability to pull it off."

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 14,000 Homeland Security workers, said the General Schedule would work if top officials would see that it is implemented the way it was designed.

The schedule "provides fair opportunities for employees to move through the system, but it does not mandate or require it," Kelley said. "This is an implementation problem, and we have zero faith that a system without structure can be implemented correctly, if the government can't do it with a structured one."

Rules relaxed

Hurricane Katrina has prompted top officials at two agencies based in the Baltimore area to relax rules to build a medical and financial safety net for large numbers of people displaced by the storm who might have no driver's licenses or a way to receive mail.

More than 25,000 people made homeless by Katrina have arrived at Social Security offices across the country, verified their identities and received checks there, said agency spokeswoman Dorothy Clark.

"These aren't ad hoc emergency plans," Clark said.

Social Security recipients who arrive at those offices without proof of identification are asked questions to confirm their identities, then handed letters that enable them to cash the checks at banks. Recipients with direct deposit who are without debit cards or whose banks are not open also can go to an office.

The agency, working with the Postal Service, has rerouted paper checks to temporary, alternative sites based on ZIP codes.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have waived state-by-state eligibility rules to ensure that those scattered by the storm can continue to get treatment for chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney failure and cancer.

Federal Workers invites area federal employees who have served or are serving in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina to share their stories. The writer can be reached at melissa.har or 410-715-2885.

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