Employees placed on job-security seesaw


April 07, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

For almost four years, a handful of workers at Department of Energy headquarters in Washington and Germantown have faced the possibility of losing their jobs to an outside contractor.

Their jobs were chosen for what federal workers call "a competition" - a bidding war among the agency's workers and private firms - that a former Bush administration official once called "smart shopping."

Agencies finished 181 competitions last year that put nearly 10,000 federal jobs up for bid. Employees won the right to keep 60 percent of them, according to Government Executive magazine, an industry trade publication. That is down from 90 percent the year before. Much of the change is due to 2,500 Federal Aviation Administration workers losing one competition.

It is one thing to look at this in terms of taxpayer dollars - $3.1 billion in savings over five to 10 years from the 2005 rulings, budget officials say - but entirely another when your job becomes as stable as a seesaw. And for the winners of those competitions, the victories often involve sacrifices. Agencies' proposals usually seek those who would do the same job with less - either with fewer people or from fewer buildings.

The Energy Department's competition has been particularly gut-wrenching as the employees lost the competition then won an internal protest - the first victory of its kind.

The agency declared a do-over and changed the selection criteria for the five-year contract worth more than $30 million. The employees protested the new rules but lost that and the competition again to Alexandria, Va.-based Logistics Applications Inc.

Employees filed their third and likely final protest March 28 - the affected workers are not permitted to take the matter to court - in one of the federal government's most drawn-out public-versus-private contracting battles.

But the numbers indicate that many employees gave up long ago: Of the 91 jobs up for grabs in the competition, 60 were filled as of March 2005. Today, about 30 of them are.

A local union official asked several of the affected employees whether they would like to comment for this article. All of them declined or did not respond. Many fear that speaking to the press will lessen their chances of moving into other jobs within the Department of Energy or in other federal agencies.

"Fear sets in first - the thought that they might not have a job," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represented the affected maintenance workers, electricians and mechanics. "Then they get angry because they know that they're working hard doing what they can with the resources they have. They start questioning why their jobs were targeted. At that point, it gets personal."

In the first round, the contractor and federal employees came out even in seven of the nine standards used to determine which group offered the "best value." On the crucial issue of price, however, Logistics won out because it offered to work longer hours. Its bid cost $2.6 million more than federal workers', but totaled less per hour.

After a successful challenge from employees, the agency changed the standard from "best value" to the "lowest cost, technically acceptable" option and extended the length of the contract by nine months. Logistics Application's new offer came in at $2 million more than its first one, but it pledged to do the job using 5 percent fewer hours than their previous bid.

An agency spokesman said the decision was based on Logistics' second offer, which was $2.2 million less than the employees'.

"We believe we selected the best value," said Craig Stevens, a spokesman for the Department of Energy. "Both groups were technically competent, but the contractor came in at a better price."

But Kelley said that she does not believe the contractor's offer.

"It is not realistic for the private contractor to decrease significantly the number of hours it will provide when the performance period is nine months longer," Kelley said. "That makes no sense and will inevitably lead to cost overruns that are not being factored into the contractor's bottom line."

Stevens said that workers are given priority consideration for other federal jobs and help with resume writing and job searches. Eligible employees were offered buyouts or early retirement.

But Kelley said the cost of actual competition - including buyouts and employee time - was not worth it.

It has been "monumental waste of taxpayer dollars," she said.


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