Mother's words touch Md. helper during Katrina's aftermath

FEDERAL WORKERS

September 18, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

FOR MORE than a week now, Veterans' Affairs worker William Little has helped thousands of people get free medicine. He has driven past homes reduced to rubble and people waiting hours in line for food, ice and gas.

But it took the words of a 4-year-old girl cradled in the arms of her mother for the nightmarish impact of Hurricane Katrina to really click in the Havre de Grace resident's mind.

While waiting in a Louisiana town for a prescription from Little's Maryland-based mobile medical unit, the girl tugged on her mother's shirt and asked when they were heading home. The mother's reply contained little comfort.

"She said, `Honey, we ain't got no home,' " said Little, 53, speaking on a cellular phone while serving storm victims outside a La Place, La., Wal-Mart, providing the 30-day medication refills for free. "I've never seen anything like it."

His eight-member unit treated patients, administered tetanus or hepatitis A shots or ordered prescriptions for more than 650 people in two days alone, said Kevin Hill, another member of the team from Darlington.

Under normal circumstances, Little would be driving a bus, ambulance or truck for the Maryland division of Veterans' Affairs. Hill would be performing maintenance on the agency's heavy equipment. Hill and Little spoke as representatives of their union.

The team left Baltimore on Labor Day, driving through the night to Jackson, Miss. From there, they went to Hammond, La., a base camp for five other mobile medical units east of Baton Rouge.

"There was just massive damage in Slidell [La.]," said Hill, 40. "All of the yards were lumber piles."

His plans now, Hill said, are to come home and give his wife a few days respite from caring for their children and then return to Louisiana.

Best workplaces

The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for the Gulf Coast's recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ranked second-to-last in a nonprofit's new survey of the "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government."

The Partnership for Public Service released its second survey of this kind Wednesday and awarded the Office of Management and Budget, an agency with fewer than 500 workers that builds the president's annual budget, the top spot. The National Science Foundation and the Rockville-based Nuclear Regulatory Commission rounded out the top three.

The homeland security agency, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is a mishmash of 22 once-separate agencies, ranked 29th. Homeland Security has suffered numerous human resources-related problems, including the loss of more than 200,000 job applications in January after its Internet-based hiring system crashed.

The rankings, which are released every other year, were based on a Office of Personnel Management survey of 150,000 federal workers conducted in late 2004.

The Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration, which employ a large number of Baltimore-area workers, ranked No. 15 and No. 21 respectively.

The survey certainly will give top agencies bragging rights . One leader also used his agency's rank to relax employees during an intense senior staff meeting Wednesday morning on hurricane relief.

"People were stressed out and bickering," Clay Johnson III, deputy director of the top-ranked agency, said during a panel discussion on the results. "I stopped everybody and said, `As bad as it seems now, remember, this is the best place to work. So no matter how disconcerted we are, it's worse everywhere else,' " sparking laughter from the audience.

To view the rankings, which include hundreds of agency divisions, log on to www.bestplaces towork.org.

New mileage rate

Federal workers using their own cars on business can now bill the government 48.5 cents per mile after the General Services Administration approved a rare midyear increase this week in the face of record-high gas prices.

The new rate, up from 40.5 cents a mile, will be in effect until the end of the year. Next year's rate, which could be lower if gas prices fall, will be announced before the newly announced rate expires.

Under the new rate, a driver would be reimbursed $97 for a 10-gallon tank of gas in a car getting 20 miles to the gallon. That fill-up would have cost about $31 in Maryland on average yesterday, leaving $66 for maintenance and other expenses, such as insurance.

The relief couldn't come at a better time for Washington and Maryland drivers, said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. Gas prices in Washington were the second-highest in the country as of last week, at $3.29 a gallon, compared with $1.94 one year ago. In Maryland, the average price was $3.11 Tuesday, compared with $1.85 one year ago.

Labor vs. management

In what is sure to be only the start of labor vs. management legal battles over civil service reforms, four unions have asked a judge to continue to ban the Department of Homeland Security's new management rules, which dramatically weaken the unions' powers.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer is expected to decide the matter before Oct. 7. Whether Collyer lifts the ban or not, the National Treasury Employees Union and the homeland security agency would have 60 days to appeal.

Either party also could appeal Collyer's first ruling. On Aug. 12, she found portions of the new rules illegal largely because they allowed management to override collective bargaining agreements.

The legal dispute has contributed to a one-year delay in launching a pay-for-performance system at homeland security.

Federal Workers welcomes readers' story ideas and comments. The writer can be reached at 410-715-2885 or melissa.harris@baltsun.com. Recent back issues can be read at www.baltimoresun.com/federal.

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