"We are continuing on the path of establishing the new HR [human resources] system," said Janet Hale, the department's undersecretary for management. "The department needs the new HR system, and we need to act quickly and decisively to meet our mission needs. We know that it is a priority of his to complete before his departure."
Ridge said on Tuesday that he would leave the department by Feb. 1. That deadline suggests that the department will try to publish its final rules in January. The rule changes were authorized by Congress two years ago.
The department has scheduled a meeting Monday with union leaders, and Ridge's aides will probably lay out a timetable for sending the department's plan to the Office of Management and Budget, which will trigger the Bush administration's formal clearance process.
The overhaul of the department's personnel system, which will affect about 110,000 workers, will be one of the most far-reaching changes in civil service rules since government-wide reforms enacted in 1978 and will probably serve as a model for other agencies seeking more flexible ways to hire, pay and discipline employees. The changes at Homeland Security almost certainly will be taken into account at the Pentagon, which is planning a shake-up of its own civil service rules.
The Homeland Security rules -- which will be phased in over many months, if not years -- will move most department employees out of the General Schedule, the government's white-collar pay system, and into one that gives more weight to occupation, location and job performance. The rules also will likely weaken the clout of unions in the department.
Although federal unions have heavily criticized the proposed changes, labor leaders have praised Ridge for listening to their concerns and working with them to reassure employees that the new system will treat them fairly.
"Two years ago they had this legislation, and for two years he has been supportive of and engaged us in these issues," Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said yesterday. "He always said that the opinions of the frontline workforce matter to him."
In a statement Tuesday, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union "has been proud to work closely with Secretary Ridge" and "looks forward to working with Mr. Ridge's successor to ensure that federal workers are treated fairly and equitably and are given the tools and training necessary to serve as our nation's first responders."
Now, with implementation of the new personnel system growing near, union leaders are concerned about who will replace Ridge and whether that person will be willing to act on constructive criticism from employee groups. "I worry about the future," Kelley said.
In addition to the personnel system overhaul, some parts of the department's workforce remains uneasy about job changes brought on by the merger of 22 agencies. Union leaders say the department continues to have problems in combining customs, immigration and agriculture inspections into one job at ports of entry.
"We all have the same uniform. We all have the same badge. But we don't have the same training or experience or skill sets needed to effectively and properly do the job," said Charles Showalter, president of AFGE's National Homeland Security Council.
T.J. Bonner, president of AFGE's National Border Patrol Council, said there is "much disarray" in various bureaus in the department. "It was a bad idea to think you could have one person being expert in three different areas," he said.
Asked on Tuesday if some department employees were "at each other's throats," Ridge told reporters that "change is always difficult" but that he believes the nation is safer.
"In a department where we've had to move so quickly and change so rapidly, the notion that there might be some people out there that are still a little uncomfortable with it is not surprising to me," Ridge said. "But we continue to work our way through whatever these irritants are to give people the comfort level so they're more worried about securing the country rather than job security."