Space is an issue at NASA

Some NASA employees today are concerned about the same space issues that bothered them in 1992. Office space issues, that is.

Since NASA relocated its headquarters in 1992 from seven buildings in and around L'Enfant Plaza in Washington to its current location in southwest D.C., most of the agency's employees at the GS-15 and lower levels have been working in Dilbert-style cubicles instead of the offices they were accustomed to.

NASA labor union members have been fighting management's decision to eliminate offices for everyone but supervisors and Senior Executive Service members since the day that they moved to the new office, said Don Teague, president of the NASA Headquarters Professional Association.

"GS-15s get a 100-square-foot space and hope it doesn't have a column in the middle of it," Teague said. "Employees at the GS-14 level and lower have 75-square-foot cubes while secretaries' cubes are 56 square feet."

Lack of privacy is a bone of contention for many employees. With the low-sided cubicles, Teague said, "if someone next to you is having a party and you weren't invited, you still get to enjoy the noise."

"We'd like some recognition of what our job really is," he added, noting that most NASA employees work on individual projects. Open space offices, he said, are better suited for team-oriented work.

Despite a ruling by the Federal Service Impasses Panel that dismissed NASA employees' protest for better accommodations, GS-15s will continue to fight to get offices. Unhappy NASA managers are now in the midst of discussing their next step, although, according to Teague, it is unlikely that they will take legal action.

NASA has undergone significant downsizing since moving into its new downtown location. NASA headquarters now operates with less than half the staff it had in 1992.

Chris Christensen, associate administrator for NASA headquarters operations, said that office space was assigned based on guidelines negotiated with the General Services Administration.

"Office space is a mighty big investment, especially in downtown D.C.," Christensen said. "We have to maximize the space we've got."

Although Christensen recognizes that the culture change GS-15s and others went through during downsizing and moving was difficult, he says NASA still has to abide by the standards negotiated with GSA. These standards require 65 percent of NASA's headquarters space to be open.

Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee who operates NASA Watch, an Internet Web site that monitors NASA events, called the office space situation a "spitting match," adding, "if you downsize people and heap more work on them, the least humane thing you could do is to give them another filing cabinet. That, however, is not NASA's policy."

Not everyone at NASA views the office space dilemma as a raging issue, Christensen said. Still, management and labor are currently discussing ways to reach a compromise. Even so, the building's infrastructure and other cost issues make it "unlikely that we will modify the space significantly," he said.

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