In a letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the head of an American Federation of Government Employees local representing FEMA employees highlighted what he said were growing management problems at the agency.
Leo Bosner, president of AFGE Local 4060, recommended that Congress remove FEMA from the Homeland Security Department, largely because FEMA's mission focuses on responding to emergencies rather than the DHS mission of preventing them. He also suggested enlisting the Government Accountability Office or another independent organization to conduct a full review of agency operations.
"Since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has become associated with waste, incompetence, mismanagement and the abuse of the power and resources given it by Congress," Bosner wrote.
FEMA ranked 211 out of 222 subcomponent agencies across government in the 2007 Best Places to Work rankings, released this month by the Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation. The agency received a score of 47.5 out of 100 for overall employee satisfaction.
There is no doubt that FEMA is facing significant challenges, said Deidre Lee, the agency's director of management and acquisition, at an event unveiling the rankings earlier this month. "We do have issues," she said. "It does impact employees to open up a newspaper and read something negative about their agency."
First, FEMA was merged into DHS in March 2003, where it lost its independence and singular focus on disaster response, Lee said. In late August 2005 came Hurricane Katrina, which quickly put the agency's organizational failures in the spotlight.
"Somehow, the exemplary government agency of the 1990s has become a glaring example of government incompetence," Bosner said. "FEMA employees continue to report problems that hamper emergency operations, waste public funds and hurt employee morale."
AFGE attributed many of FEMA's troubles to a lack of strong leadership. Bosner said he has tried to contact David Paulison, the agency's director, numerous times to discuss employee morale problems, but each time has been declined. The union recommended that the Bush administration replace Paulison.
But Aaron Walker, a FEMA spokesman, said Paulison is very supportive of union representation and has made a point to attend or have another FEMA leader attend quarterly labor-management meetings to discuss concerns surrounding employee morale. Walker said Bosner has not attended the meetings.
"Rather than sending out worthless letters, he should attend the [labor-management] meetings to address these concerns," Walker said.
Walker added that Bosner represents only about 80 dues-paying workers out of a total of almost 2,000 employees at the agency.
"I would argue that letters like this actually bring down the morale at FEMA," Walker said. "You have one man claiming he speaks for thousands when he speaks for tens."
Bosner said he does not attend the labor-management meetings because they typically last two days and give unions only one hour to ask questions. "We're not going to go to the meetings because we have tons of pages of serious questions," he said. Walker said he is optimistic that the 2007 hurricane season and beyond will put FEMA in a different light, especially as it proves its ability to effectively meet the needs of disaster victims.
"We're trying to strengthen our employee communications so that employees don't feel as though they're in a vacuum in terms of receiving information," he said. "We've implemented a number of changes brought forth by Katrina, and I think you're going to see a rise in the morale of employees across FEMA."