Seafood inspectors at the Commerce Department perform "inherently governmental" work and should not be forced to compete with private contractors to keep their jobs, a group of congressional Democrats said Thursday.
Turning seafood inspection over to contractors could hurt the U.S. seafood industry and open the door to outsourcing federal meat and poultry inspectors, warned 39 Democrats in letters dated June 12 to Commerce Secretary Donald Evans.
The lawmakers were protesting a decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a Commerce Department agency, to classify 157 seafood inspectors as "commercial" and eligible for public-private competition under the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act. NOAA spokesman Jordan St. John confirmed the agency is considering whether to hold a job competition involving the workers.
In separate letters, House and Senate Democrats urged Evans to reclassify the inspectors as "inherently governmental" and put them off-limits for competitive sourcing. "It is difficult to understand how this key public health function can be considered nongovernmental in nature," wrote 20 House Democrats. A Commerce Department spokesman said it was premature to comment on the letter.
The inspectors staff NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program, a program that certifies the quality of seafood produced by U.S. companies. The program is voluntary for members of the seafood industry and funded by company-paid user fees. It receives no appropriated funds.
NOAA certification is a sign of quality valued by the seafood industry, particularly U.S. companies that export seafood to other countries, according to Justin LeBlanc, vice president of government relations with the National Seafood Institute, an association of seafood firms based in Arlington, Va. The seafood industry believes federal employees should conduct seafood inspections, he said.
"The credibility of the program in the marketplace is based on the fact that it is performed by a government inspector," said LeBlanc.
But using contractor inspectors could give NOAA more flexibility to manage the program, which experiences seasonal shifts in workload, according to St. John. He added that seafood inspection is not a core part of NOAA's mission. "We're a scientific research agency, so having an inspection service is kind of an anomaly to our overall operation," he said.
NOAA will continue to manage the program even if the agency opts to use contractor inspectors, said St. John. He cautioned that no decision to hold a job competition-or hire contractor inspectors-has been made. "It's part of a general review throughout NOAA of areas for potential private sector outsourcing."
In their letter to Evans, 19 Senate Democrats expressed concern that making NOAA inspectors eligible for outsourcing could open the door to classifying other federal food inspectors as "commercial" in nature, including meat and poultry inspectors in the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service. In a July 2001 analysis, the Office of Management and Budget urged the Agriculture Department to classify more inspectors as "commercial."
NOAA inspectors believe their jobs are "inherently governmental," said Jay Wilson, a seafood inspector who works in Pittsburgh and is the secretary-treasurer of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2594, an inspectors' union.
"I think clearly we do inherently governmental work in that we protect public health in making sure substandard fish products are not entered into commerce," he said. Wilson is working with officials in AFGE's national office to challenge their "commercial" designation through the FAIR Act challenge-and-appeals process.
In a June 2 ruling, NOAA denied a union challenge to the designation. The union filed an appeal to this decision Thursday.
Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., orchestrated the letters urging Evans to protect the inspectors from possible outsourcing.