Union employees at Commerce opt for pay-for-performance

Federal labor unions have expressed concerns about proposals to implement pay-for-performance systems across government. But employees from two labor union chapters are voluntarily participating in a pay-for-performance demonstration underway at the Commerce Department.

The pay-for-performance system links employee compensation to perceived performance on the job. This approach is an alternative to the government's General Schedule, which does not factor performance in the same way.

Commerce's system is part of a demonstration project run by the Office of Personnel Management. Implemented in 1998, the five-year trial has since received an indefinite extension, according to OPM spokesman Michael Orenstein.

The project is one of several used by officials as the basis for the pending Homeland Security and Defense departments' pay-for-performance overhauls.

The two bargaining units whose employees made this decision are the Washington Printing and Graphic Communications Union Local 1-C in Maryland, whose parent organization is the Graphics Communication Conference, and the Boulder, Colo., Local 2186 Chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Paul Harvey, president of AFGE Local 2186 and a carpenter for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says the members made the switch because they think they can get more money with a pay-for-performance system.

"I thought it would be a good deal," Harvey said. "I thought the demo program would give them additional income."

About 20 police officers in the Office of Security are part of the demonstration. They provide security for property of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration in the Commerce Department, according to Harvey.

He said his union members saw that NIST employees around them, who have a pay-for-performance system, "move up the pay scale quite a bit." The financial benefits, Harvey said, include a locality cost-of-living increase for living in an expensive city like Boulder.

Not all union members in Commerce are happy to be part of the system. In 2003, for example, members of the National Weather Service Employees Organization filed a request with the Federal Service Impasses Panel to get out of the system.

The request stated that the union's "preferred outcome is that employees cease participation in the demonstration project" and return to the General Schedule. The union argued that a survey showed that 62 percent of its members wanted to return to the GS system.

The national AFGE organization has mixed thoughts on pay for performance as well.

"If there's enough money…to give higher performance increases, that's fine," AFGE Labor Relations Specialist Terry Rosen said. "The problems come when there isn't enough money to do that, but instead, in order to give one person more money, you have to take away" money from other employees.

Rosen also said that there are difficulties in actually determining performance levels among workers, as well as resentment among employees who are paid different amounts.

Representatives from the Printing and Graphics Communication union could not be reached for comment.

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