October 17, 2003
Union to fight for employee-friendly pay system at Homeland Security
By Shawn Zeller
With a senior review committee of top agency and union officials set to hold public hearings next week on creating a new personnel system for the Homeland Security Department, American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage told a group of reporters Friday that his union was ready to go to the mat to preserve employee bargaining rights and to make sure wage and disciplinary systems are beneficial to employees.
In authorizing the creation of DHS last year, Congress allowed the department to establish its own personnel system, waiving several sections of the existing civil service law to allow DHS to replace the General Schedule classification system and to establish new pay, promotion, and disciplinary systems.
A design team made up of staffers from DHS, the Office of Personnel Management, and unions representing DHS employees over the last several months worked to come up with a set of options for the senior review committee to consider. The committee, made up of high-level DHS, OPM and union officials, will narrow the list, while DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, and OPM Director Kay Coles James will make the final decision on what the new system will look like.
On the issue of wages, Gage said that he would oppose any effort to create a pay-banding system within DHS, an idea that is popular among Bush administration officials. A pay-banding system would eliminate the 15-grade General Schedule system, and replace it with a set of broader pay ranges. Proponents say it would help agency managers bring in promising new talent by enabling them to offer higher starting salaries, and would also help managers keep top employees by allowing them to promote employees faster.
But Gage said he fears that pay-banding would be combined with a "forced distribution" system, whereby only a fixed percentage of employees would be eligible for raises each year. "That's not fair, and that's not equitable," he said.
Instead, Gage said he will propose a "career ladder-plus" approach that will preserve annual pay raises for all employees, while eliminating the requirement that employees serve a certain amount of time at each grade before being promoted. That would enable managers to promote employees more quickly while preserving the fairness of the General Schedule system, he said.
On the issue of employee disciplinary appeals, Gage said he would fight to keep an outside third-party arbitrator for DHS employees. While he said he sees no reason to take the existing arbiter—the Merit Systems Protection Board—out of the process, he would be open to other ideas. One such proposal would create a three-member board, with one member from management and one from labor, with a third selected by the other two. By contrast, he said, "A system set up internally, totally controlled by management, doesn't fit the bill."
Gage added that he would work with DHS management to find ways to make the appeals system work faster. He said he would be willing to accept changes to Chapter 43 of the civil service rules (Title 5) that require managers to provide poorly performing employees with a "Performance Improvement Plan" before they can fire or demote them. Gage said that system has "always been disingenuous."

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