Nuclear security employees to try pay-for-performance

Nonbargaining unit employees at the National Nuclear Security Administration may become the latest test group to work under a new pay-for-performance system proposed by the Office of Personnel Management.

The proposal, published in the Federal Register earlier this week, aims to compress the 15 pay grades under the General Schedule system into multigrade paybands. The process would eliminate the fixed steps that give automatic pay raises to employees, and would make annual pay adjustments performance-sensitive.

More than 2,000 employees could participate in the project. It will affect employees in every major headquarters and field organization of NNSA, which is a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department.

The small group of employees in NNSA's only bargaining unit will be an exception. But according to the National Treasury Employees Union, NNSA has succeeded in removing some positions from the bargaining unit over the past few months.

"We are concerned that DoE will use this as a foothold to expand the project to include bargaining unit employees, or to obtain broader authority to depart from the General Schedule," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley. By law, OPM is authorized to conduct demonstration projects that experiment with different human resources management concepts to determine if changes in policy would result in better governmentwide management.

OPM hopes the proposal will improve hiring practices by allowing NNSA to compete more effectively for high-quality employees by offering higher salaries, the notice stated. The project also is designed to motivate and retain staff by providing faster pay progression for high-performing employees and eliminating automatic pay increases so only "fully successful" employees will receive pay adjustments.

The project may be modeled in part after the controversial National Security Personnel System being developed by the Defense Department. "To ensure expeditious and effective project implementation and completion . . . NNSA will review the successes, mistakes and lessons from the experiences of other agency demonstration projects, notably the current [Defense] laboratory projects, [including the] new National Security Personnel System," the notice stated. But modeling after the controversial Defense system may prove difficult. Congress granted the department authority in 2004 to create the human resources system, based on the notion that the current system was too rigid and outdated to allow Defense to respond with agility to modern threats of terrorism.

Pentagon officials have said they have congressional authority to override collective bargaining agreements after they are reached and the ability to narrow the items over which employees can bargain. But a coalition of federal labor unions sued the department, arguing the rules effectively eliminated collective bargaining.

The Pentagon lost in a lower court in February 2006 but later appealed the ruling, arguing that Congress gave Defense officials authority to make far-reaching changes to collective bargaining. That case has yet to be decided.

A similar court case brought by NTEU and other labor unions against a Homeland Security Department personnel system concluded in June 2006, when a panel of judges said the proposed labor relations portion of the system gave too much power to department managers and did not provide adequate collective bargaining rights for employees.

American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage and NTEU's Kelley said after the launch of the DHS system in 2004 that they were pleased the department had pledged to move slowly on the project, with only 7,000 to 8,000 employees affected in the first year.

But NTEU may not be as gracious this time around. "NTEU will carefully examine this proposal and plans to submit comments," Kelley said. "NTEU has yet to see a paybanding or pay-for-performance program in the federal government that is superior to the General Schedule in that it is fair, credible, transparent and appropriately funded."

Written comments on the proposal must be submitted by March 30, and can be sent by e-mail to Demoprojects@opm.gov. A public hearing on the demonstration is scheduled for April 4 at the Energy Department headquarters.

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