Labor leaders seek permanent job competition limits

Labor union representatives urged lawmakers on Tuesday to make permanent legislative provisions aimed at leveling the playing field for federal employees forced to defend their jobs against contractors through public-private competitions.

At a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommmittee on Financial Services and General Government, union members thanked the panel for incorporating language on public-private competitions in the appropriations measure covering most agencies for fiscal 2007. For example, the measure requires contractors to show they can offer savings of at least 10 percent or $10 million -- whichever is lower -- over the cost of retaining federal employees.

Union representatives urged lawmakers to retain the provisions in future spending bills. National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley pledged she would work with appropriators and other relevant committees to make the changes permanent.

Kelley and J. David Cox, national secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees, also sought new measures to extend federal employees' rights to appeal decisions in public-private competitions. The groups would like employees to have the same rights as contractors, for appeals to the Government Accountability Office and the Court of Federal Claims.

Currently, GAO only will accept protests from the official representative of the federal employee team vying to retain work -- known as the "agency tender official." Unions cannot file appeals on behalf of the employees.

Some lawmakers expressed more general concerns about public-private competitions.

"There are serious questions raised regarding the cost effectiveness of outsourcing many federal employees' functions," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., chairman of the subcommittee.

Meanwhile, union representatives also voiced concern over the widening pay gap between public and private sector employees. Congress approved a 2.2 percent average federal pay raise for 2007, the lowest pay increase in 20 years.

President Bush's proposed fiscal 2008 budget includes a 3 percent pay increase for civil servants and military service members, but union officials said the proposal fails to close the estimated 13 percent gap between private and public sector pay. NTEU urged a 3.5 percent pay raise, while AFGE proposed a 4 percent pay hike for 2008.

Lawmakers stopped short of promising any action, but noted that annual pay increases have lagged far behind the pay adjustments authorized by the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act.

As the government faces a retirement wave, the pay raise is only one of a number of significant challenges agencies face in ensuring they can recruit and retain valuable employees, lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing agreed.

Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said the government needs to invest more in helping managers make better personnel decisions. He also urged officials to ensure the Office of Personnel Management has the funding necessary to adequately promote careers in federal service.

Recruitment could benefit from prime-time advertising, much like that used by the military, Stier added. Visits to colleges and even to high schools to educate young people about careers in public service would help as well, he said.

But union officials said the most important factor in overcoming retirement challenges is making government jobs competitive with those in the private sector. They argued that the government must improve salary adjustments, benefit plans and employee rights to gain an edge.

OPM Director Linda Springer contended, however, that the opportunity to serve the public is at the forefront of people's interest, and that pay and other issues are secondary factors in recruiting talented workers. "When [individuals] consider public service, we have a great story to tell and that should help us attract that talent."

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