Union criticizes report backing NASA workforce flexibilities

A federal labor union has taken issue with some recommendations in a congressionally chartered organization's report on reshaping NASA's workforce to meet a new mission.

In a May 21 letter to National Academy of Public Administration Fellow John G. Stewart, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers highlighted a suggestion that lawmakers give NASA emergency authority to ask older employees to retire.

"It is the premise that openly discriminating against NASA's older employees is a necessary prerequisite for NASA building its future workforce that IFPTE finds both false and repugnant," wrote Lee Stone, legislative representative for the NASA council of IFPTE locals, in the letter.

The recommendation was contained in a NAPA report to Congress earlier this year that identified challenges that NASA could face in moving 18,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors to the Bush administration's new Vision for Space Exploration program.

The organization suggested that lawmakers provide NASA with a new package of flexibilities that -- in addition to limited authority to modify retirement regulations in emergencies -- would include new reduction-in-force rules and blanket employee buyout authority with a high dollar-value incentive.

The panel focused in part on retirement-eligible employees because "it is not as much of a hardship for someone who is fully eligible for their annuity to retire from their job," the report stated.

But IFPTE has argued that NASA primarily is facing a budget crisis. Until the agency gets the funding it needs, its missions and workforce will remain at risk, according to the union.

In testimony earlier this month, IFPTE recommended that Congress fund NASA as close to its authorized level as possible and provide stability for employees by rejecting any reduction in force. The union also recommended that the agency enhance its voluntary buyout authority.

Stone said Thursday that NASA puts a $25,000 cap on buyouts for employees. But raising the cap to the level of an employee's annual salary and offering benefits for 18 months would make the offers more appealing, he said.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin sent legislation to Congress last month that would enhance the buyout authority by offering employees the additional 18 months of benefits Stone is pushing. The proposal also would offer certain permanent employees an incentive, calculated as a percentage of their basic rate of pay, for moving to temporary appointments.

But IFPTE opposes the temporary appointments, arguing they leave room for the agency to replace civil servants with contractors. The board charged with investigating the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster determined that an increase in the number of NASA's contractors relative to federal employees contributed to the disaster.

Stone argued that the most critical element of workforce reform is ensuring the recruitment and retention of quality employees and maintaining the agency's standing as a popular place to work. NASA came in fourth among large agencies in the latest rankings of the best places to work in government issued by the Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation.

Moving forward with many of NAPA's proposals and Griffin's temporary appointment proposal would hinder the agency's ability to attract a well-qualified workforce, Stone said.

"Employees like to think about their jobs and not worry about whether they're going to be laid off tomorrow," Stone said. IFPTE also has recommended that NASA begin an aggressive recruitment campaign while the current staff is still on board to transfer knowledge.

Stone said lawmakers plan to hold a hearing in late summer to discuss NASA's workforce issues in more depth and to consider the provisions included in Griffin's proposal.

NAPA did not return calls seeking comment.

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