Congress backs limit on taking jobs private

Federal Workers

October 05, 2007|By Melissa Harris

It is an announcement federal employees dread.

Instead of being laid off, furloughed or bought out - although that can happen, too - federal workers are told that they must "recompete" for their jobs against private-sector companies.

Typically, more than a year after the announcement, the agency decides whether to find "efficiencies" in its work force or give the work to a private firm.

Few enjoy competing to keep a job. And now, after several years of fighting with the Bush administration and a Republican Congress over the process, called A-76, the workers' unions have more powerful advocates on Capitol Hill, where the House and Senate are now controlled by Democrats.

On Monday, the Senate passed an amendment to the behemoth defense spending bill that would make it even more difficult for private companies to win those competitions.

The House version has almost identical language, giving the restrictions a strong chance in conference committee.

"This is the biggest win in the 14 years I've been working on this," John Threlkeld, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, said of the Senate vote. "They're the most significant reforms ever contemplated to the contracting-out rules."

The amendment would change the rules in several ways.

Contractors would have to prove that they could save taxpayers 10 percent or $10 million to win the competition. That would ensure that the costs of running the competition were recovered.

Workers also would get the right to appeal an unfavorable decision directly to the General Accountability Office. Currently, they must do so through an agency tender official, a federal employee who leads the in-house team's campaign to keep the jobs.

Within the Department of Defense only, contractors could not get an edge by paying less for health-care benefits than the agency does, or by offering less-expensive retirement benefits.

Also within the Defense Department, the Office of Management and Budget could not set quotas for the number of jobs in competition or otherwise order the agency to run a competition.

"These quota-driven bounty hunters force these wasteful A-76 reviews, even on agencies that do not want to do them or in categories that give them pause to pursue," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and the amendment's co-sponsor, said on the Senate floor. "It wastes time. It wastes taxpayers' dollars."

Industry groups contend that competition saves the government billions of dollars, savings that they say the spending bill would end because private companies would choose to avoid the hassle.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, agencies received two or more private-sector offers on 30 percent of standard competitions during fiscal 2006, compared with 53 percent on average during the previous three years.

"It's ironic because all Congress is talking about these days is competition, competition, competition, but the majority of these competitions have few bidders," said Stan Z. Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council and a former Defense Department acquisition official during the Clinton administration. "Economists will tell you it really takes three [bidders] to have a marketplace."

Soloway blamed Congress for the declining interest in A-76 competitions in the private sector. He noted West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd's successful effort to block mine safety and health functions from competition, but only after the Department of Labor had declared a company a winner.

"That took away part of the contract award, and, as a result, the Department of Labor canceled the whole contract and refused to compensate them for the transition costs," Soloway said.

The Senate amendment, he said, "is dampening any enthusiasm to compete."

Mailbag

Last week's column on nondisabled Social Security Administration employees who use bathroom stalls for the handicapped generated a number of responses.

After a wheelchair-using employee urinated on himself a few times because the stalls were occupied, he filed a discrimination complaint against the agency and won $6,500 in damages.

Victoria Dorf of Baltimore, who is disabled and works for the agency, wrote that she witnesses the offense often and wishes employees would suffer consequences.

"My wish: Fine them all big-time. Maybe having to pay for the offense would get to them; signs and threats certainly don't."

Yvonne Dobbs, an agency employee in Arkansas, disagreed, calling the judge's ruling appalling.

"The stall is for his convenience. ... Maybe he should go to the restroom sooner, in case he has to wait for a stall, just like everyone else has to wait. Being disabled should not give you priority over everyone else!"

David Aylor of Charleston, S.C., a law school graduate interested in working for a federal law-enforcement agency, wrote asking for more information on the new student loan-forgiveness program for public servants that went into effect Monday.

The program was the subject of this column two weeks ago.

The Project on Student Debt offers a helpful Q&A on the pitfalls and benefits of the legislation. A link is available on its homepage, www.projecton studentdebt.org, under the headline "H.R. 2699 Signed Into Law."

Send us your comments and feedback. The writer can be reached at melissa.harris @baltsun.com or 410-715- 2885. Recent columns can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

At a Glance

For the fiscal years 2003-2006, there were 1,243 competitions involving 46,825 full-time jobs. Federal employees kept 83 percent, or almost 39,000, of those jobs.

Activities most frequently subject to competition:

Maintenance/property management: 25%

Information technology: 20%

Logistics: 20% [Source: Office of Management and Budget May 2007 report]

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