Federal employees win NIH job competition

Grants management assistants at the National Institutes of Health on Wednesday prevailed in a public-private job competition, but the agency's maintenance workers are still awaiting the outcome of a second A-76 study.

An in-house team of 677 NIH employees who provide technical and administrative support for grants managers won a bid to keep their jobs after the one company vying for the work submitted a proposal that fell short of the contract's requirements. Called the "extramural administrative support service" group, workers on the in-house team assist NIH physicians and scientists in charge of awarding roughly $22 billion worth of research and training grants to medical schools and laboratories each year.

NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said in a statement that he is "delighted" by the outcome of the competition, which began in January. By putting the jobs up for bid, NIH has assured taxpayers that it is "managing wisely," he said. The win also "reaffirms [the agency's] ability to effectively carry out [its] mission to improve people's health," Zerhouni added.

Though the competition's outcome is good news for most grants assistants at NIH, those who were not included as part of the agency's "most efficient organization"-the in-house team that competed for the work-will lose their positions as a result of the A-76 study, said Bill Grigg, an NIH spokesman.

Those grants assistants will not need to relocate geographically, Grigg said. Some will leave their positions through "normal attrition," while others will place their names in a "transition pool" and will subsequently receive another NIH assignment. Zerhouni said he will "work to make this transition as smooth as possible."

Tim Wheeles, NIH's competitive sourcing program manager, could not give the exact number of grants assistants who will be displaced as a result of the study, but said the agency had about 750 assistant positions, some of which were vacant. The most efficient organization leaves room for 677 grants assistants.

NIH's grants department will be better off overall as a result of the competition, Wheeles said. The department will be able to operate more efficiently because of the reductions in the grants administrative staff. These reductions come mostly from the higher pay-grade assistant positions, he noted. In addition, the department was able to eliminate a number of contract workers who had also been helping out with grants administration, Wheeles said.

Wheeles could not provide a dollar amount of savings expected as a result of the A-76 study.

Meanwhile, roughly 700 NIH maintenance workers are still in the middle of a separate competition, which also started in January. The agency has classified its maintenance positions as "commercial" under the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act for several years, and the agency has rejected union appeals of that designation.

Richard Laubach, a maintenance worker whose job is under study, said he remains convinced that maintenance work is "inherently governmental" and added that he is worried serious security problems could arise if contractors win the competition.

"Contractors are there to make a profit," and could give "unproven characters" access to NIH laboratories, said Laubach, who is also president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2419. NIH labs often contain hazardous materials, including ingredients that could be used for biological or chemical weapons, he said.

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