Pentagon seeks broad changes in pay, discipline, other policies for civilian employees

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Civilian employees of the 5th Signal Command recite the oath of office during a special ceremony in Wiesbaden, Germany in 2001.    Karl Weisel/U.S. Army photo
Civilian employees of the 5th Signal Command recite the oath of office during a special ceremony in Wiesbaden, Germany in 2001. Karl Weisel/U.S. Army photo

Pentagon seeks broad changes in pay, discipline, other policies for civilian employees

by: Eric Yoder | .
The Washington Post | .
published: September 18, 2015

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon plans a thorough overhaul of personnel policies for its civilian employees, affecting everything from how they are recruited through how they are paid and advanced — and disciplined.

While certain changes likely would take many months or years to put in place - many of them requiring changes in law — some are within the department's existing authority and could get started soon. The American Federation of Government Employees objects to the changes and its president, J. David Cox Sr, called the plan "nothing more than a bad flashback," to personnel policies repealed in 2009.

The "pre-decisional" document was released on Tuesday by AFGE, one of several unions that received it at a recent routine meeting with Defense Department officials to discuss labor-management issues. The changes it seeks would be anything but routine, however, and would represent the most significant attempt to change federal personnel practices since early in the George W. Bush administration.

At that time, Congress enacted the National Security Personnel System, which carved out a separate set of policies for DOD in many of the same areas, in particular by more strongly emphasizing performance in pay, advancement and retention, and by giving management more leeway in taking discipline. The NSPS system took several years to set up but was repealed in 2009, largely due to opposition from unions.

"NSPS was so discriminatory and harmful to the workforce that it was repealed by Congress less than two years after taking effect," Cox said in a statement. "This was one of the most spectacular failures in personnel management, and we object to these proposals being repackaged and sold to us again."

DOD is the largest single employer of federal employees, accounting for about 750,000 of the 2.1 million apart from the self-funding U.S. Postal Service. Changes to personnel policies there can set precedent for expansion to the rest of the government.

As early as Oct. 1, DOD might begin to assess how procedures now allowing some offices "increased flexibility to compensate and promote talented employees" could be applied more widely. Carrying that out would require a change in law, though, as would related plans to pay higher salaries in the medical, science, technical and math fields, and to double the maximum amount of retention allowances to 50 percent of salary.

Also, DOD said it will support legislation to make performance the first factor in deciding who stays or goes when jobs are being cut through a process called reduction in force. Currently, performance is the last factor, behind the type of appointment, veterans' preference and length of service. A similar proposal is pending in the Senate version of the DOD budget.

The plan also supports changing the law governing employees' appeal rights when disciplined, which the document calls "time consuming, labor intensive, procedurally complex, and emotionally draining."

Among the other proposals under consideration:

  • The maximum that could be paid in buyouts to encourage employees to retire or quit voluntarily would rise from $25,000 to $40,000, and managers would have more leeway in offering those incentives.
  • An employee could be immediately suspended without pay if it is believed that performance or conduct might merit demotion or firing. The employee would have seven days to respond, and if the discipline is carried out, the employee then would have seven more days to file an appeal. A new office would be created to advise management on how to take disciplinary actions that would stand up on appeal.
  • The standard probationary period would increase to two years from one. During that time an employee generally lacks any appeal rights.
  • All employees who are not eligible to be in union bargaining units — about a fifth of the workforce, including supervisors and managers — would be considered "excepted service." This would give more freedom in pay setting based on the market value of the job, and allow for advancement only due to the person's qualifications and performance, rather than on longevity. It would require a change in law.
  • Paid parental leave would be set at 18 weeks for birth mothers, and 12 for their spouses and partners, as well as for adoption. Parents also would be entitled to work part-time for the first year afterward. The proposal describes that change as achievable through a rewrite of rules, which would be within an agency's powers.
  • Changes in hiring practices could include greater outreach to the private sector and academia in seek of candidates; shortcut procedures for hiring those especially well qualified; and breaking off from the central hiring portal run by the Office of Personnel Management. These could be done with current DOD authority.
     
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