Two months ago, Montez said he was told an air monitor, provided by the depot about a year ago, tested high for levels of strontium chromate, an additive in corrosion-resistant paint used in Army helicopters serviced at the depot. Workers picked at random wore the monitors for one day, Montez said. Strontium chromate, classified as a cancer-causing chemical by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can be inhaled when helicopter parts are sanded or drilled.
"I want to know what I've got," said Montez, 29, who has worked at the depot for four years. "(Depot officials) said I'd go to the doctor about a month ago and I'm still waiting. If I go to my own doctor, I can't even explain what I've been exposed to. How is my doctor supposed to screen for it?"
Depot officials released a statement Thursday saying they are aware of grievances and are working to resolve them.
"The primary concern of the depot leadership is, and always has been, to ensure a safe and proper work environment for all employees," said the statement, released by the depot's public affairs office. "The depot continually evaluates and analyzes data in potentially hazardous areas."
Montez is one of an estimated 900 depot employees who have been exposed to the chemical and are seeking answers, said Joe A. Gonzales, president of the local chapter of American Federation of Government Employees. The union filed a grievance with the commanders of Naval Air Station Corpus Christi where the depot is located Monday to remedy unsafe working conditions and demand hazardous pay for workers.
"The union has not been invited to discussions on the matter between base commanders and environmentalists Gonzales said. "I'm getting secondhand information and our questions have not been answered. Our health is at stake here and we don't have a seat at the table."
Among the workers wanting answers is James Paymo, who works near Montez. He said he wasn't given a monitor a year ago and fears he won't receive the proper medical attention.
"If his area tested hot and I work right next to him, what does that say about what I'm breathing in?" said Paymo, 40, who has worked at the depot for three years. "The (depot's) industrial hygienist said the air conditioning and ducts are contaminated, too. We know we have a job to do and we know our job's important. But, the concern is always on your mind and it's tough."
Edward Platz, a five-year mechanic in the depot's blade shop, said the process to remedy concerns with the ventilation system began last week.
Platz, 35, received a respirator and lab coat last week and now is required to wear them when sanding. He also has seen work being done on the ventilation system. But, even with these changes, Platz said he still is concerned about working conditions.
"I represent my shop at the union and I haven't seen air sample results. We don't know how many are affected, nor how," Platz said. "We don't even know when the chemical began being used on helicopters that we service. We've had more personnel, more hours and more sanding this year than we did last year. If last year's samples were hot, I'm afraid of what that means for this year's samples."
Senators assail new Defense Department personnel rules
By AIMEE CURL
New rules governing how the Defense Department pays and manages 650,000 of its civilian employees received a chilly reception on Capitol Hill Nov. 17 when members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee called the proposal everything from unfair to unacceptable.
The controversial National Security Personnel System, unveiled Oct. 26, will peg employee pay raises to job performance. In addition, NSPS will overhaul the way employees reviews are conducted, curb unions’ ability to negotiate over work-force decisions, and give managers more power to discipline and reward employees.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the Defense Department “has failed to meet its challenge.”
“The system is vulnerable to those who reward loyalty over quality of performance. It could reward those who tell senior officials what they want to hear and not what they need to know,” he said.
Levin noted that the first thing to happen after the proposed regulations were released in February was that the department was sued by labor unions, who claimed they hadn’t been properly consulted over the proposed changes.
“That’s not a good indication that it’s going to have the support it needs,” he said.
Following the release of final rules, 10 unions filed another lawsuit Nov. 7 claiming NSPS illegally curbs collective bargaining and lacks a fair process for appealing disciplinary actions. A day before the hearing, Defense and the unions reached a legal agreement to delay until Feb. 1 major parts of the system that were have begun by the end of this month. Both parties jointly petitioned that their arguments be heard in court the week of Jan. 9, said John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Union representatives demanded the Senate committee take legislative action to change the proposal.
“I wish I could relate to you the indignation of our members across the country because of these regulations and how they’ve been put out. I don’t believe we’ve been listened to,” Gage said. “We need congressional action. These regs will hurt DoD, they will hurt employees and will take away from the mission of national security for years to come.”
Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she’s heard from many employees who say they’re frustrated by a lack of information.
“I understand many details are under development and will be provided in the coming weeks. It’s difficult to provide employees with the information they are seeking when so much remains under development,” she said.
Gordon England, acting deputy Defense secretary and senior executive for NSPS, stressed that the development of the new system involved a variety of interests, including Congress, the Office of Personnel Management, employees, managers and union representatives.
England said Defense will proceed with training managers on the new system despite the lawsuit and the agreement to delay the start date.
“I feel that is a step forward, to proceed with the program and not just be stopped by the courts,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s not about NSPS. It’s about having a more highly motivated work force, and NSPS is the way to get there.”
Congress told cartel enforcers are at doorstep, knocking
Web Posted: 11/18/2005 12:00 AM CST
Express-News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Paramilitary enforcers for Mexican drug cartels are responsible for a wave of violence in Nuevo Laredo that poses a serious threat for residents on both sides of the Southwest border, U.S. law enforcement officials told a House committee Thursday.
Assassinations, kidnappings and daylight shootouts between military-trained gangs place citizens at risk along the border where violence has soared past historical norms, officials said.
"These paramilitary groups work for the cartels as enforcers and are a serious threat to public safety on both sides of the border," said Chris Swecker, the FBI assistant director for the criminal investigative division.
Law enforcement officials said the violence is intertwined with other criminal activities along the border, including the smuggling of narcotics and undocumented immigrants.
The rising violence prompted a joint oversight hearing by House Judiciary immigration and crime subcommittees.
"A very dangerous criminal element is at our doorstep, and knocking," said Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.
The hearing comes as House lawmakers are eyeing legislation this year that would boost law enforcement along the Southwest border to stanch the flow of illegal immigration and curtail violence associated with drug and human smuggling.
A growing number of Democrats are among those urging the Bush administration to crack down on criminal elements along the border.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, said she opposed the use of U.S. militia groups to help patrol the border, but she said more funds were needed by law enforcement agencies to better enforce federal laws and stop the violence from spilling into the United States.
Violence exploded along the U.S.-Mexico border this year with 157 reported murders and 63 kidnappings in Nuevo Laredo, said William Reid with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Federal officials said a turf war among drug cartels is responsible for the violence, which includes the assassination of a Nuevo Laredo police chief, who was gunned down in broad daylight.
Even U.S. law enforcement agents are threatened, said Reynaldo Garza, Border Patrol deputy chief in the Rio Grande Valley. There have been 548 assaults on Border Patrol agents in 2005, more than double the 220 reported in 2003, Garza said.
The root of the escalating violence is the use of trained paramilitary enforcers known as Los Zetas by the Gulf Cartel, which is still supervised by kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen, despite his 2003 arrest, Reid said.
Los Zetas is comprised of former members of Mexico's special forces, many of them military deserters hired by the Gulf Cartel, according to the FBI.
They are supported by U.S. organized crime groups known as the Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate and Hermandad de Pistoleros Latinos.
Battling the Gulf Cartel for the lucrative smuggling corridor that runs from Monterrey to San Antonio is the Federation, headed by Mexican drug thugs Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman Loera and Arturo Beltran Levya, federal officials said.
That cartel is supported by gangs that include Los Negros and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a Central American-based network of criminals with growing membership in the United States.
"While violence has traditionally been associated with cross-border activity, the current level of violence in the Nuevo Laredo area dramatically exceeds historical norms," Reid said.
Law enforcement officials testified Thursday the rising violence in Mexican border towns could move to U.S. cities if more is not done to stop it.
Several bills under consideration in the House would boost spending for law enforcement agencies and provide equipment to better combat smuggling.
The FBI has established special task forces in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, comprised of 35 officers, to combat street crime that originates from Mexican border cities.
This year Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced a special violent crime team under the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms in Laredo.
Other ATF crime teams are operating in Houston, Tucson, Albuquerque and Los Angeles.
In July, the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency launched Operation Black Jack with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
The initiative targeted criminals in the Texas cities with ties to the Mexican cartels. It has resulted in the seizure of marijuana, cocaine, assault rifles and the arrest of 20 suspects.
Still, law enforcement officials conceded that stopping violence and crime along the Southwest border is an uphill battle.
"We are not being very effective in stopping anything, either people coming across or drugs," said T. J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council of the American Federation of Government Employees.
House panel backs bill to tighten border security
By Chris Strohm
The House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday approved a sweeping bill that would stiffen the nation's border security.
The 2005 Border Security and Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 4312) authorizes the hiring of 8,000 more Border Patrol agents and 1,000 new inspectors at ports of entry over the next four years. It also would allow for the addition of 32,000 beds to detain illegal immigrants and the construction of more physical barriers along the border.
The act requires increased use of military surveillance technology along the borders. Starting next October, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau would have to detain all illegal aliens.
Union leaders, however, said the bill falls short because it does not merge two of the Homeland Security Department's law enforcement agencies and fails to give border inspectors the status of law enforcement officers. It also does not provide for stronger enforcement of laws barring employers from knowingly hiring illegal aliens or address the economic roots of illegal immigration, union members said.
"This is kind of like chicken soup," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. "It doesn't hurt, but does it help?
"I would hope this is not the flagship bill that the House is considering to secure our borders, because it does very little," he added.
Under the bill, DHS and the Defense Department would need to develop a plan to provide the Border Patrol with Defense surveillance assets, such as unmanned aerial vehicles.
DHS also would have to submit a national strategy to Congress within a year after the bill is passed "to achieve operational control over all ports of entry into the United States and the international land and maritime borders of the United States."
In addition, the act would require DHS to report on the progress of cross-border security agreements signed with Mexico and Canada.
And the bill would place DHS' Air and Marine Operations division directly under the authority of the secretary, in the hopes of creating "a more flexible, coordinated air program capable of providing tracking, deterrence, rapid response, and investigative support to multiple DHS agencies."
"We must establish operational control of our borders and swiftly remove illegal immigrants once they arrive," said committee chairman Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "The time to act is now."
Democrats on the committee introduced several amendments that either failed by vote or were withdrawn.
An amendment by Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., called for merging Customs and Border Protection and ICE; it was withdrawn.
The department's inspector general issued a controversial report earlier this week citing numerous problems between CBP and ICE and calling for the two agencies to be merged.
"The department's inspector general's recent report has identified problems in organization, management, information sharing and operations that prevent CPB and ICE from efficiently and effectively carrying out their responsibilities for enforcing our laws and protecting the American people," Meek said.
DHS, however, is opposed to a merger. Department officials say many of the issues cited in the IG report were the result of financial problems at ICE and say most of the problems are being addressed. The current organizational structure should be given more time to succeed, they argue.
Meek withdrew his amendment because it was apparent it would not pass and because he was assured by King that the committee would continue to examine whether the agencies should be merged.
The bill, however, requires the department's secretary "to take immediate action to address the inefficiencies and poor communication between [ICE and CBP]."
The act also would require a review of the One Face at the Border program within CBP.
"This will be the first, comprehensive review of the program, which we are confident will show that the security of this nation depends on Congress doing away with the One Face program," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
An amendment offered by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, to give CBP personnel the status of law enforcement officers also failed. Law enforcement officers are eligible to retire earlier than standard federal employees, and with more generous annuities. Unions argue that CBP officers are uniformed, carry guns and have arrest power, so they should have the same benefits as other federal law enforcement officers.
In early November, some Republican House and Senate lawmakers released a joint concept paper which seeks to bring pay parity to federal law enforcement, including CBP officers. Unions said they oppose the proposal, however, because too much decision-making power is given to the Office of Personnel Management.
The border security bill now must be approved by the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees.
VA union claims unfair labor practices against management
By Bob Kliebenstein
Inside the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center Chapel, there was a program to recognize and honor veterans on Veteran’s Day, last Friday.
Just a short distance from the chapel, a group of VA employees participated in an informational picket seeking what they say is “unethical treatment of its bargaining unit employees” by VA administration.
The employees are members of the American Federal Government Employees’ (AFGE) Local 1882 AFL-CIO, the union that represents approximately 65 percent of the VA’s 753 employees. Lin Hillman, executive vice-president of Local 1882, said the informational picket was in response to what the union contends is the VA management’s refusal to honor a contract that was signed in 1999.
“We have a signed contract in 1999 that VA management has been ignoring,” Hillman said. “It has come to a boiling point. Management won’t even speak to the union.”
Other “talking points” presented by Local 1882 include:
u Making unilateral decisions without talking to the union.
u VA administration encourages respectful treatment of veterans, but many union members are veterans who feel they are treated with disrespect.
u The union is being forced to use third party intervention to protect its contract which is costly to taxpayers. That is money that could be saved if VA management would negotiate as required by law.
u Union members picketed on Veteran’s Day because of the right of freedom of speech secured by veterans.
The union has five or six unfair labor practices pending with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, said union chief steward Jeff Puttkamer
Lois Ames, Local 1882 president, said unfair labor practices have been an ongoing occurrence by VA management, but since the start of this year, she feels they have become “hostile” to the union.
One of the specific charges levied by the union involves the social work reorganization at the VA. The union contends that social worker staff have been “stripped” of positions and are being forced to assume new roles.
VA Executive Director Stan Johnson chose not to comment on the picket last Friday because of his wish to respect the meaning of Veteran’s Day. He did respond to the union charges earlier this week.
“It is unfortunate that we have had differences with the union,” Johnson said. “We have attempted to work through the appropriate bargainable issues and will continue to do so. Veterans continue to receive excellent healthcare from our outstanding staff. The recent changes being made are in an effort to continually improve patient care, to provide a safe environment for our veterans/staff, and to increase the efficient use of resources.”
According to a Nov. 10 memo from Johnson to the union, the decision to reassign social workers is a “management right that is, in and of itself, not a negotiable issue.”
Johnson’s memo indicates that reassignments were made to “better address patient care needs and that all positions will remain at the existing pay grades and only specific duties and location of work will change.”
Senators skeptical of Pentagon plan for personnel reform
By Karen Rutzick
A group of senators instrumental in addressing federal personnel issues voiced concern at a hearing Thursday over the final regulations on the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, expressed discontent with the planned makeup of the National Security Labor Relations Board, which would replace the Federal Labor Relations Authority in handling the Pentagon's labor-management disputes. Collins said she is concerned because the secretary of Defense is slated to have sole responsibility for appointing members of the board.
"I believe it would be wise to designate one these slots for a union representative," Collins said.
Collins aired her concerns at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management hearing, convened to discuss the final regulations, which the Pentagon published Nov. 1 in the Federal Register. The regulations seek to streamline labor relations and replace the General Schedule with market- and performance-based compensation.
Employee dissatisfaction with the system also is worrisome, Collins said. Committee members George Voinovich, R-Ohio; Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; and Carl Levin, D-Michigan, shared that concern.
Shortly after the final NSPS rules were published, a coalition of 10 unions representing Defense workers filed a lawsuit, claiming the system illegally erodes collective bargaining rights. On Wednesday, the department and unions reached an agreement that will delay implementation of the labor-relations portions of the regulations until at least Feb. 1, allowing for the lawsuit to play out.
Voinovich said that after reading the final regulations, he has "mixed feelings."
"I remain concerned that the NSPS still does not possess a key element needed for successful reform--employee acceptance," Voinovich said.
Levin asked Gordon England, acting deputy secretary of Defense and head of the NSPS effort, to explain why employees were against the new system.
England, however, disagreed with that premise.
"There may be a small vocal number" of employees who are unhappy with NSPS, England said, but "a lot of employees are very excited about this. I'm convinced our employees will find this program very beneficial as it's rolled out and implemented."
The senators also remained skeptical about implementation. Despite the hundreds of pages of regulations, the department left much of the detail--including the number of pay bands, minimum and maximum salaries in those bands, and core competencies for performance evaluations--to be determined in the future.
Levin said the committee was told last May that the department had a "huge packet" of implementing issuances, but has yet to see any of them. "Waiting until the last minute" to finalize and publicize them "is not a rational...approach," he said.
Collins said the as-yet-unseen implementing issuances are part of the reason employee buy-in is lacking.
"Until these employees have the information that enables them to fully understand NSPS, they will remain skeptical," Collins said.
Voinovich pushed department officials to release details.
"There's been a lot of apprehension about the issuances," Voinovich said. "The sooner we can see those, I think the better we'll all be."
Despite these concerns, Voinovich and Collins said they remain committed to personnel reforms, and hope for stepped-up communications between unions and department officials.
"Failure is not an option," Voinovich said. "The next six months to a year are crucial. This committee will be watching."
England reminded the committee that the department's authority for the labor relations reforms expires in 2009, providing a check on the system if Congress is unhappy at that time.