Defense Department HR proposal draws criticism

In 2004 Congress passed a law giving DOD significant flexibility to manage its more than 700,000 civilian employees. Proposed regulations, made public Feb. 14, would implement such HR practices as pay banding and pay for performance and would allow DOD to give greater priority to employee performance in any downsizings or layoffs.
In its recent report to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization, GAO made three major recommendations about the proposed DOD National Security Personnel System (NSPS):
• DOD should “define the details of the implementation of the system,” providing adequate safeguards to ensure fairness and guard against abuse.
• It should require the use of core competencies to communicate to employees what is expected of them on the job.
• It should identify a process to involve more employees in the planning, development and implementation of the system.
“GAO strongly supports the concept of modernizing federal human capital policies, including providing reasonable flexibility,” GAO said in its report to Congress. “The federal government needs a framework to guide human capital reform … [that would] consist of a set of values, principles, processes and safeguards” that would provide consistency yet be adaptable.
The report noted that NSPS could, “if designed and implemented properly, serve as a model for governmentwide transformation in human capital management. However, if not properly designed and implemented, it could severely impede progress toward a more performance- and results-based system for the federal government as a whole.”
GAO recommended that DOD create a chief management officer to provide leadership for the new HR system plus other business functions. It stated that “the lack of clear and sustained leadership for overall business transformations [is] one of the underlying causes that has impeded prior DOD reform efforts.”
John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told legislators that failure to improve the proposed NSPS could have “enormous financial and national security ramifications.” He urged legislators to reject the proposed system as it stands.
AFGE and nine other unions have filed suit in federal court claiming that DOD drafted the proposed NSPS without the input of unions and employee representatives, as required by the law authorizing the new system. He asked for consultation with unions and employee representatives to create objective standards for performance appraisals and arbitration appeals before neutral third parties. In addition, Gage sought strong safeguards to prevent reductions in pay and procedures for layoffs that would base a worker’s fate on more than just the most recent personnel evaluation.
However, Dan Blair, acting director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, told legislators that DOD was preparing to begin a 30-day “meet and confer” process with unions to discuss their concerns with NSPS. He noted that two meetings had already been held to discuss schedules and access to key documents.
“The proposed changes at the DOD will benefit the hard working men and women of the department,” Blair stated. “The classification system and pay structure has been simplified to enhance career growth and will provide higher earnings potential for qualified, talented and motivated employees.”
Continued Blair: “The performance system will better serve the security of our nation because it better links individual performance and the department’s mission, goals and objectives. I see the NSPS as an important step in modernizing the civil service.”

Still afraid to go back to work
By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
OKLAHOMA CITY — Caren Cook didn't go along when the Department of Housing and Urban Development moved into the new Oklahoma City Federal Building in March 2004.
Cook and more than a dozen of her HUD co-workers, ridden with anxiety over returning to the place where a bomb killed 35 of their colleagues a decade ago, were allowed to go to work a few blocks away.
But Cook says that the rift she feels between herself and those who work at the new federal building, cater-corner to its predecessor, has only added to her emotional pain. And some of her colleagues feel that they are now being unfairly scrutinized by management and fear that their secondary office will be taken away.
"We were so close and so bonded together as a group of survivors," says Cook, 51. "It's like there are two sides now. ... It was hard to lose people again, and you feel like you have."
Today marks 10 years since Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people in what before Sept. 11, 2001, was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. No federal agency saw a greater loss of life than HUD, a tragedy that bonded those who survived in grief. (Photo gallery: Images of Oklahoma City before and after the 1995 bombing)
A memorial to those killed in Oklahoma City now sits where the Murrah building once stood. The new Oklahoma City Federal Building opened its doors in December 2003.
The rift between those who moved into the building and those who refused speaks to how, a decade after the devastating attack, psychological wounds have not healed. It also raises questions about when it's time to move on.
"It's been almost 10 years," says Cathy Coulter, one of the 90 HUD employees who moved to the new building. She believes her colleagues in the alternate office, in a former Montgomery Ward building downtown, should be there as well. "I'm not saying it's not hard sometimes. But I've chosen not to let that event run my life."
A study taken within eight months of the Oklahoma City attack found that 34% of those directly in the path of the bomb blast suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, says Carol North, who conducted the research. She's a professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Although most who live through trauma will not develop PTSD, a psychiatric disorder characterized by intrusive memories and insomnia, many people can experience post-traumatic stress reactions. Among them: being extra-vigilant and anxious, particularly on an anniversary of the event, says Robin Gurwitch, a program manager for the terrorism and disaster branch of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Even the weather could be a trigger, she says, "because it was such a nice day 10 years ago."
F. Joseph Moravec of the U.S. General Services Administration says that when federal officials decided to put the $42 million federal building across the street from the old Murrah site, it was viewed as a way to show that the U.S. government would not bow to terrorists. Yet the mere thought of moving into a new federal building so close to the memorial has resurrected nightmares among many federal employees who survived the bombing.
"I thought from the beginning that I would never want to go there," says Colleen Larney, 54, who has worked for HUD for 16 years and got permission to work in the alternative site. "It wasn't because of the location. It was because it was a federal building. ... I didn't want to be a target again."
Others were troubled by the proximity to the Murrah site and by the building's design — a concave-shaped structure facing boulders in shallow water. To some, the building resembled the bombed-out shell of its predecessor, and the rocks mirrored the rubble strewn the day of the attack. The location "was a big problem to me," says Cook, who suffers from PTSD. "Then they built the building, and it looks to me like the burned-out Murrah building."
While 11 agencies are housed in the new 181,000-square-foot structure, some that were in the Murrah building did not return.
Wes Davis, regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration, says his agency stayed in a local mall because it's more convenient. But he adds, "I won't deny that there weren't some members ... in the Social Security office who would prefer not to be back in that immediate area again."
Still on edge
Several HUD staffers say they are on edge because they don't know how long they'll be able to stay in the alternative building.
"Even after they talked about us being able to come to the alternate work site, I wasn't really sure that was going to happen or not," says Carol Beranek, 54, who has worked for HUD since 1985. "There was lots of apprehension and anxiety."
As the time to move into the new building last March drew closer, Beranek says that she was unable to sleep. She re-entered counseling. It's not fear of another bombing, she says, that keeps her out of the new federal building. "I'm not afraid to die," says Beranek, who still has glass shards embedded in her body. "I just did not want to go to that site every day."
HUD spokesman Brown says that the agency has a two-year lease on the alternate work site, at an annual cost of about $60,000, with an option to renew for three years. "We cannot underscore enough that we are sensitive to our employees' needs," Brown says.
But Calvin Moser, a division director, doubts that the second work site will be maintained for as long as some employees may need it. "I know that the emphasis is to have those people retire, quit or go to the new building," he said.
HUD officials "continue to put as much pressure as they can to have that happen," says Moser, 63, who worked in the alternate office for about three months before going out on worker's comp for stress-related heart problems last year.
Parsley says that workers were initially told they had to provide proof of their medical disabilities once a year, but they were asked for it six months early, in January. And some workers say that despite years of solid performance, they are now being unduly scrutinized.
It's all too much for Larney. "I feel a lot of extra pressure was put on those who did not go" to the new building, says Larney, 54, who says she and co-workers had to submit a weekly progress report to their administrator. "It just all got to me after a while," Larney says. "I just didn't like the not knowing and the ill feelings going on."
Kevin McNeely, HUD's Oklahoma City field office director, says that agency-wide, employees who work from home are required to submit reports to their supervisors "in lieu of the face-to-face meetings you'd have in the workplace."
HUD spokesman Brown says that a request for some workers to resubmit medical documentation was not uncommon, with the "reasons for the requests ranging from shifting workloads to realigning resources and missions."
With some in the new building having to pull files or do other tasks for their co-workers in the off-site office, some say that there has been animosity between the two groups. "The employees in the new federal building have more or less cut them off," Parsley says. "I've gotten the feedback. 'They're just over there not doing anything. They're just babies.' You can tell there's a lot of resentment."
Coulter does not understand why her colleagues in the alternative work site complain. "They got what they wanted," she says, despite that "we (at HUD) have an office, we have a place to go. ... If they didn't work for the government, they wouldn't have a job."
Coulter was one who wrote letters and went to Washington to resist going to the new building.
But last March 15, when HUD finally moved in, Coulter says she and some of her colleagues agreed to arrive there at the same time to support one another.
"I was angry because they'd told us we didn't have to go back, and then after 9/11 they said we had to show the world we weren't afraid of terrorists," Coulter says. "But I had to go. So you put one foot in front of the other, and you go."
Coulter, who suffers from PTSD, said that first month was difficult and she still struggles. She averts her gaze after she parks her car, never looking upon the memorial as she makes her way into the building. In December, she had to see a counselor after the sight of broken glass outside the building sparked a flashback to the day of the attack, when the windows were blown out.
She and Deborah Parks, another HUD employee who moved into the new building, deny that fear of professional repercussions compelled them to go to the new building. And they have weathered the move.
"It doesn't mean I don't understand those who could not," Parks says. "But I was able to. The alternative was being isolated" in the new office. "And that was worse."
Still, Cook says she is glad to be able to work and to have a space where she feels more or less at peace. "I've just gotten back to the point where I could laugh and tell jokes, but I hadn't been able to do that in 10 years," she says.
She believes that there are lessons in Oklahoma City for those who survived the Sept. 11 attacks or for the soldiers who are returning from war in Iraq and possibly nursing their own emotional wounds.
"We really need to be careful to find out what their limitations are because it's not that they can't be productive, ... it's that there are new limitations," she says. "And that's why I fought to not go to that building. ... I would be focusing more on the bombing, and that isn't healthy for me."

Robins, union reaffirm alliance

By Gene Rector
Telegraph Staff Writer
ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE - Top officials from Robins Air Force Base and the American Federation of Government Employees Local 987 reaffirmed a partnership agreement Monday that both sides believe will lead to continued improvement in labor relations.
Maj. Gen. Michael Collings, Warner Robins Air Logistics Center commander, and Tom Scott, Local 987 president, signed a three-part agreement that will continue quarterly partnership council meetings and retain informal processes for resolving grievances and unfair labor practice complaints.
The agreement was first reached in May of 2003 when many base supporters feared that a growing number of worker complaints could threaten the base's standing during BRAC 2005. BRAC is a federal process for identifying bases for realignment and closure.
Lt. Gen. Donald Wetekam, the center commander in 2003, and Donald Thompson, then-president of Local 987, signed the original agreement. Local 987 is the bargaining unit for most civilian workers at Robins.
"The results over the last two years are a good indicator that this works," Collings said following the formal signing process. "We've lowered both grievances, and (unfair labor practice charges)."
He gave most of the credit to better communications. "If we can talk across the table, discuss openly and ensure people are informed, we can eliminate a lot of worker complaints," Collings said. "There has to be communications between workers and supervisors as well as union and management. We all want the same thing. We may approach it in a different way, but we can work that out if we communicate."
Scott agreed that the partnership is working. "We have reduced the number of complaints and we've been able to foster better labor relationships," he said. "Today's ceremony is just a recommitment by new leadership to this process." Collings became center commander in February of 2004 and Scott was elected president of Local 987 last October.
The partnership council consists of four management and four labor leaders headed by Collings and Scott or their designees. It meets quarterly to discuss issues of broad concern to the work force. The two other agreements set up multi-step processes for resolving grievances and unfair labor practice charges.
Reggie Butts, a labor relations officer at Robins, said the changes during the past two years have been dramatic. "We had an adversarial relationship two years ago," he said. "Since then, we've seen a steady decline in both ULPs and grievances. We just need to keep it up."
Butts said there had been an overall decline of 65 percent in formal worker complaints. "We had 506 grievances in 2002 and 171 in 2004," he said. "Right now, our ULPs are down to 11. We had 111 ULPs in 2002, 69 in 2003 and 18 in 2004."
Neither side believes the partnership agreement will be affected by the Defense Department's new National Security Personnel System. NSPS will replace the existing General Schedule system for managing and paying civilian employees in a three-phased approach beginning in July with a new labor relations system.
"We might have to tweak or modify something when we actually see the NSPS regulations," said Scott, "but I think this still can be applied and used."
Robert Williams, chief of the work force and resources division, agreed. "This is a means to resolve disputes at the lowest possible organizational level," he said. "With the agreements signed today, we will have a framework in place to build on past successes and to continue that in the future."

Minuteman effort may spread into S.D. region
Group plans civilian patrols along border
By Leslie Berestein
April 19, 2005
The media attention garnered by the Minuteman Project in Arizona since the beginning of April is inspiring similar projects to combat illegal immigration elsewhere, including one plan to bring civilian patrols to the border south and east of San Diego this summer.
An organization formed last year that calls itself Friends of the Border Patrol hopes to gather enough volunteers to patrol from the ocean to the Imperial Valley.
"If we can pull it off to the Arizona border, that would be amazing," said chairman Andy Ramirez, the Chino-based former executive director of Save Our State, which tried last year to place an initiative on the ballot to bar undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver licenses. "It would be great if we can blanket the entire Southern California border."
Friends of the Border Patrol, formerly chaired by Proposition 187 co-author Ron Prince, is one of several groups interested in putting together a Minuteman spinoff.
"There are a lot of people trying to get in touch with us, to bring the Minutemen to all kinds of places," said Grey Deacon, a spokesman for the Minuteman Project, who said the organizers will soon produce a how-to manual.
Since it began April 1, the Minuteman Project has drawn hundreds of volunteers, as well as journalists from around the world, to Arizona to watch for people crossing the border illegally.
But why civilian patrols would come to the San Diego area, the most heavily fortified segment of the U.S.-Mexico border, is cause for skepticism among some local border-watchers.
"It would be puzzling if it weren't for the fact that their real prey is the media," Claudia Smith, border project director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, who focuses on immigrants' human rights.
Then there are logistical challenges. Minuteman patrols in Arizona have been operating in relatively flat terrain, but civilians attempting to conduct patrols in Southern California will have to navigate hills, deep canyons, and in the Tecate area, mountains that prove challenging even for the Border Patrol.
"It's something that will be part of the feasibility study," said Ramirez, who plans to obtain logistical advice from off-duty or retired Border Patrol agents.
San Diego sector Border Patrol spokesman Kurstan Rosberg said he was aware of the group's plan, but that "at this point, we are not going to comment on the situation."
Joe Dassaro, president of Local 1613 of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents San Diego-area agents, said he has been talking to Ramirez but described talks with the union as "very tentative."
While some retired agents might be interested in participating, Dassaro said he doubts off-duty agents will put their jobs on the line to volunteer, even if they like the idea.
In Arizona yesterday, Minuteman organizers announced that chief organizer Jim Gilchrist of Orange County will leave the project early.
"He is declaring it very much of a victory, and announcing Phase Two of what he is doing," said Deacon, the Minuteman Project spokesman. Deacon said Gilchrist next plans to campaign against employers who hire undocumented workers.
Gilchrist, who plans to appear before the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus in Washington next week, will keep the Minuteman Project name. Meanwhile, the patrols will continue in Arizona as planned through April 30 under the name of co-organizer Chris Simcox's organization, Civil Homeland Defense.

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