More than 200 GAO employees to petition for back pay

More than 200 active and retired employees at the Government Accountability Office are planning to file petitions with the agency's Personnel Appeals Board Wednesday, seeking pay and benefits they claim to have lost since the implementation of a new personnel system.

In a May 4 e-mail, a group of GAO employees encouraged the petitions, urging colleagues placed in paybands I, II or III under the market-based compensation system to file with the appeals board's general counsel for "pay justice at GAO." Any employee who believes he or she has lost out on "rightful pay" as a result of the new arrangement is eligible to sign the petition, according to the e-mail.

The move follows a settlement between GAO and 12 of its employees last month. Under the agreement, the employees received promotions and back pay and interest they claimed to have lost as a result of being placed in Band IIA. The agency's personnel appeals board's general counsel determined that the data and calculations used to conduct the employees' performance evaluations were flawed.

"Now it is our turn to follow in the footsteps of our 12 colleagues who had the courage to challenge GAO's 'assertions and claims' at the PAB," the e-mail stated.

GAO spokesman Paul Anderson said the agency would not comment until the petitions have been filed and reviewed by the appeals board.

A GAO employee, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that one of the goals of the petitions is to prompt the appeals board to investigate the details behind a Watson Wyatt market-based compensation study Comptroller General David M. Walker used to make pay determinations last year.

In 2003, Walker urged Congress to pass human capital reform legislation as a way to facilitate a more market-based and performance-oriented pay system at GAO. He assured lawmakers that under the new system, GAO employees who met expectations would receive across-the-board pay increases.

But Walker has characterized the results of the Watson Wyatt compensation study as an "extraordinary event" that determined that a number of GAO analysts were overpaid, thus justifying their placement into a lower payband and denial of the across-the-board increases. But several GAO employees argued that this move should have been reported in GAO's fiscal 2005 and 2006 performance and accountability reports to Congress.

"If it was an extraordinary event, he was legally required to report that to Congress," said a GAO employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If you've seen the letters to Walker from Congress, Congress was under the impression that everyone would receive their cost-of-living adjustments."

Thus far, 204 active GAO employees and 12 retirees have signed the petitions. The GAO organizer said employees would deliver the petitions to the appeals board on Wednesday.

GAO issued its final payband placement decisions to employees in December 2005, and while employees were given only 30 days to appeal their specific placement decision, there was no affirmative notice stating that employees could or could not file grievances or appeal their pay, another GAO employee said.

"Lawyers have told me that each paycheck is an appealable action," the employee said. "If you don't feel as though you're getting your right pay in your paycheck, every two weeks would provide a basis for another claim."

The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce plans to examine the compensation study and Walker's actions at a hearing next week.

Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., chairman of the subcommittee, said Tuesday that he hopes GAO managers and employees can reach an agreement that is satisfactory to all parties. But he added that he is surprised that such a disagreement could occur at the watchdog agency. "GAO has often been thought of as the go-to place, a model for other agencies," he said.

Davis added that next week's hearing will address whether the personnel changes at GAO have affected employee productivity, morale or "the ability to turn out the quality and quantity of work that the GAO has been well known for."

"We'll be looking for a general overview of the operation of the agency," Davis said, "and whether or not there are any recommendations or proposals for change that need to be further scrutinized."

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