New rating method to decide bonuses at SSA

The Bush administration is pressing all agencies to abandon pass-fail appraisal systems and to adopt rating systems that distinguish among at least three levels of performance: unacceptable, fully successful, and above fully successful. It is fashioning a legislative proposal, called the Working for the America Act, that would press all agencies to do this.
And if Congress passes a law to authorize civil service reform at all agencies, SSA will use the new rating system to help determine raises for employees. For now, the system will be used only to decide performance bonuses.
SSA’s new system is a result of more than a year of negotiation with the American Federation of Government Employees. It will cover 50,000 employees. But the union agreed only reluctantly to the new system.
Reginald Wells, SSA’s deputy commissioner for human resources and chief human capital officer, said the agency is changing the system “to really hold people accountable and to have a system that distinguishes performance so that the superior performers are being recognized.”
The current pass-fail system doesn’t distinguish superior performers, as both top performers and those who are just getting by receive a pass evaluation, Wells told Federal Times July 25. The multilevel system is the only way to recognize top performers, he said.
SSA has not set a date to launch the new system, but Wells said it will be this year.
Wells refused to speculate what will happen to the rest of the 15,000 employees who are managed under different collective bargaining agreements. He said each agreement has a different time frame and SSA has not started negotiating others.
“But we try to have compatible or similar features in all of our agreements, because we don’t want to treat employees differently,” he said.
Witold Skwierczynski, a chief AFGE contract negotiator, said “we didn’t have a choice” but to agree with the agency to change the appraisal system as SSA threatened to impose more restrictions. If AFGE had disagreed, the issue would have been sent to an outside panel — the Federal Service Impasses Panel — which, Skwierczynski said, often rules in favor of agencies.
Skwierczynski said the union prefers the pass-fail system because it fosters teamwork. The new system, he said, will encourage employees to compete against each other. According to Skwierczynski, SSA had a five-tier appraisal system before 1996 but the union was able to negotiate the pass-fail system during the Clinton administration.
Joe Riddle, human capital practice leader at consulting firm Management Concepts, said the change at SSA is consistent with the Office of Personnel Management’s and the Office of Management and Budget’s push to move away from the pass-fail system.
“All agencies that have pass-fail systems are in the process of going to multilevel systems, most five but some fewer, in response to OPM and OMB, who maintain that pass-fail systems are inconsistent with the inevitable widespread use of pay for performance,” said Riddle, former OPM deputy associate director for human capital leadership.
Besides establishing the new appraisal system, the agency-union agreement allows SSA managers to talk to each other about employees’ performance when employees change jobs within the agency. Currently, current and prospective managers are not allowed to discuss workers’ performance because of the union’s concerns about bias.
“We feel it prohibits the positive things from being shifted as well,” Wells said.
The union also lost influence in how the agency nominates and awards outstanding employees.
Currently, management decides who receives annual performance bonuses. A panel of management and union representatives decides who gets smaller bonuses, such as for one-time accomplishments or contributions that promote SSA’s mission.
Under the new bargaining agreement, all bonuses will be decided by management, based on the ratings.

GAO Urges Pentagon to Tackle Rank and File's Misgivings About New Pay System
By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, August 3, 2005; B02
T rust and communication are two keys to pulling off large-scale change, and a report recently provided to Congress suggests that the Pentagon may need to put more muscle into addressing the concerns of employees and unions as it prepares to launch a new pay system for more than 700,000 Defense civil service workers.
The report, from the Government Accountability Office, said the Pentagon needs to create a comprehensive communications strategy and reach out to employees and others this year when it begins to implement the National Security Personnel System. One of the NSPS's key changes, Defense unions contend, is designed to weaken collective bargaining rights.
The GAO reviewed a Pentagon document on plans to inform employees and others of the NSPS and concluded that its "strategy is not comprehensive" and "does not identify all key internal stakeholders and their concerns."
The document did not identify unions as key players, the GAO said, "but, instead, characterizes union leadership as 'NSPS' biggest detractor.' "
In addition, the GAO said, the Pentagon "has not included employee representatives on the working groups that drafted the design options for the new system."
The GAO report did not go unnoticed by the United DOD Workers Coalition, a union group that opposes the NSPS and is urging Congress to revisit the broad authority it granted the Pentagon to overhaul its civil service rules.
In a news release, John Gage , president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, "The GAO report clearly supports our concerns that the design process did not involve active collaboration and the coalition was not consulted in a way that addressed the concerns of the workers that we represent."
Gregory J. Junemann , president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said, "The GAO report reconfirms what we have been saying all along: that the DOD and OPM [Office of Personnel Management] have left workers out in the cold when it comes to the creation of NSPS."
Ten unions that represent Defense employees have filed a lawsuit alleging that Defense has failed to include them in the development of the NSPS labor-management relations program.
Pentagon officials have said their plans call for reducing the number of issues that can be put on the bargaining table and for creating an internal board to resolve disputes with unions. Defense has said that the changes are necessary to help it deploy staff and technology more quickly in the global war on terror.
In a letter accompanying the GAO report, the Pentagon said that it disagreed with several of the GAO's findings and that NSPS officials "recognize the importance of reaching out to and engaging all stakeholders, both internal and external."
Defense officials have convened more than 100 employee focus groups, held more than 50 "town hall" meetings, created a Web site, prepared informational brochures and sponsored a conference in Tampa for more than 500 senior leaders, lawyers and others, the letter said.
An NSPS spokeswoman said that some key points made by the GAO were based on a "draft," or tentative, communications strategy that had been prepared by Defense contractors but was not adopted by the department.
According to the Defense letter, the Pentagon opted to use tailored communications plans for each significant step in the NSPS development and shared them with unions, employees and others.
The Pentagon also asked employees to participate in a Web-based survey to collect information about job performance factors and behaviors important to their work. About 70,000 of 517,000 employees asked to participate completed the survey, the NSPS spokeswoman said.
Diary Live Today
Please join me at noon today on Federal Diary Live at for a discussion of federal employee and retiree issues.
Diary in Error
The Aug. 2 column's item on an increase in the tax-free transit subsidy was wrong. The provision was dropped by House and Senate negotiators from the highway and mass transit bill approved July 29 by Congress. The negotiators decided that the issue would be more appropriate for consideration on legislation involving benefits and not highway and transit funding, a Senate aide said.

Labor may be down,
but it's not out
Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

Labor is on the ropes. Fewer than one in 12 private-sector workers belongs to a union, and the numbers continue to slide. Tensions over this dismal statistic fueled the recent fracture of the AFL-CIO in Chicago on its 50th anniversary.
Have unions become an anachronism? Just the opposite is true.
At a moment when American workers are under unprecedented pressure from wages to health care - not to mention pensions - we'd have to invent unions if we didn't already have them.
Unions provide the highway to the middle class for millions of American workers. Today the union wage advantage is considerable: an average $781 a week for members compared with $612 for everyone else. And millions of nonunion workers enjoy higher wages and benefits because of the "union threat." Still, corporations in our much vaunted 21st century economy are increasingly employing 19th century labor relations strategies.
This isn't just bad for workers, it's bad for the economy. In the past, unions forged the link between rising productivity and improved wages. Better wages fueled a virtuous cycle of economic growth and jobs.
If all this is true, why is union membership on the skids? A lot of factors are at play, but for millions of Americans it comes down to this: Try to join a union and risk losing your job. We've developed a serious democracy deficit in the workplace: More than 50% of workers tell pollsters they would like to join a union, while fewer than 8% are members.
How can unions turn the situation around? The key is bringing together innovative strategies with new urgency. Three areas stand out.
First, organizing. New members buttress the present strength and future vitality of labor. The UAW has shown it can organize auto parts workers, a sector where the heat of the global economy is more like a blowtorch; the SEIU has brought together the weakest and most marginal workers, such as nursing home workers, and given them hopes of joining the middle class.
Second, politics remains central. More than one-third of federal workers are organized, a fact that reflects good organizing, but also a 1962 edict by President John F. Kennedy that allowed it.
Third, labor needs to be part of a broad social movement. The AFL-CIO has signed up almost 1 million nonunion people in the past year in a new organization called Working America to express their political views; the teachers unions in New York are working with ACORN to unionize more than 50,000 home day care providers, and UNITE HERE, the hotel and apparel workers' union, has become a powerful voice on immigration reform.

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