The new National Security Personnel System will replace the decades-old General Schedule pay system in a three-phased approach, beginning with implementation of a redesigned labor relations system in July.
The more than 12,000 civilian workers at Robins Air Force Base will fall under NSPS during the summer of 2006, with full implementation throughout the Defense Department by January 2008.
Details of the system are receiving a final scrub, according to Dale Foster, chief of the civilian personnel flight at Robins.
"The NSPS rules are at the Federal Register for public comment," said Foster. "That 30-day comment period will end about March 15 and I would expect a 30-day review to follow. I have been told to expect final NSPS rules by late May or early June."
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been the prime mover in pushing for Congressional authorization for the change. He has contended that the current system forces his managers to "deal with information age threats using industrial age organization."
In a 2003 speech, Rumsfeld said Defense Department leaders are not free to manage the civilian work force.
"Civilian workers are not being rewarded for merit," he added. "They're losing opportunities to contribute because critical tasks are assigned to military personnel or contractors." Congress gave its approval to the new personnel system in the 2004 defense authorization act.
Although NSPS rules are not final, they are expected to directly link promotion and pay increases to performance and allow managers to shift workers to higher priority jobs without union negotiation. The expected changes include:
• Compression of the current 15 pay grades into three to five levels called pay bands.
• Approval of pay adjustments by managers without the current competitive selection process.
• Replacement of annual and step increases with pay raises tied to performance.
• Possible premium pay incentives of 10 percent to 45 percent for supervisors.
• Reduction in force decisions driven by performance rather than today's broadly applied system based on seniority, tenure, veterans' preference and other factors.
• Rehire of retired workers without salary and annuity offset provisions.
• Union negotiations, particularly of broad issues, by the Defense Department instead of by major commands or individual bases. The defense secretary also would have implementation authority if agreement is not reached within certain time frames.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the bargaining unit for most civilian workers at Robins, has taken strong exception to the changes. A Local 987 press release said NSPS will "significantly narrow employee rights to collective bargaining and all but eliminate due process rights."
Gary Schechterle, Local 987 spokesman, said the union was issuing mailers and pre-addressed postcards so workers could contact their congressmen.
"We're trying to get people involved in this," he said. "This is a big deal and it's scary. NSPS will put a lot of power in the hands of supervisors who don't have the training to handle it. That scares us and it should scare everyone at Robins."
Foster says NSPS is designed to give management more flexibility to support the mission. But he insists that due process rights will not be eliminated.
"Workers will not lose their right to grieve most actions or file an equal employment opportunity complaint," he said. "In disciplinary actions, managers still have the burden of proof. And employees will have the right to grieve, although the system will be quicker and more efficient."
Another sweeping NSPS feature is the creation of pay bands. Robins workers likely will be classified as entry level, journeymen or subject matter experts. Two other categories - supervisory and management - may also be used.
"We don't have a firm grasp of how many pay bands will be operating at Robins," said Foster. "There are several options, although they have not been finalized. We also don't know if the pay bands will be organizational or functional."
Pay pools headed by a pay pool manager and a pay panel are another feature of NSPS. The pools likely will group from 50 to 500 employees and could be structured by organization or work function or type.
"Some of the flexibilities being considered would give pay pool managers the ability to increase salaries based on performance and offer higher entry level salaries," said Foster.
Foster said pay pool decisions will be based on supervisory evaluations.
"Managers will rate their employees and those ratings will be reviewed at the next higher level to ensure consistency," he said. "Then those ratings would go before the pay pool manager."
Performance will drive ratings and pay increases, although there will be provisions to ensure workers do not lose money as NSPS is implemented. "Once NSPS is fully implemented, annual pay increases will be exclusively driven by performance," Foster said.
Robins employees who have contacted The Telegraph have expressed misgivings about the new system, but they have declined to be quoted by name.
Foster said NSPS would contain "checks and balances" to preclude what he called "aberrant behavior" by supervisors. He also said he had heard the employee misgivings before.
"I've been in personnel for about 23 years and you hear that continually from a small cadre of employees," he said. "If those employees believe that today, they will believe it under NSPS. I don't see it changing."
Foster, who has been selected to run the base's NSPS program office, said the task ahead is clear. "Our job will be to provide education and training to the entire base population," he said. "We hope to overwhelm employees with good information to that their concerns about the change are mitigated to the extent we can."