Court extends deadline for DHS decision on labor rules

A federal district court on Tuesday extended the Homeland Security Department's deadline for issuing plans to either revise or abandon proposed labor relations rules under a controversial new personnel system.

Judge Rosemary Collyer from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the agency to file a status report no later than Jan. 17, 2008. DHS' original deadline was Tuesday. Department officials alerted the court Monday that they would need an additional six months to provide the report, prompting an extension.

In October 2006, Collyer indicated that she would retain jurisdiction in a case brought by labor unions against DHS' proposed labor relations system, should further litigation arise. She also directed the agency to provide the status report, taking into account the strongly worded ruling against the original proposal.

"We're continuing to weigh our options," said Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for the department. "We've made great progress with our performance management. We're focusing on advances in recruiting, hiring, training and fostering employee morale."

Collyer first ruled against the proposed labor relations system in August 2005, saying it would illegally curtail collective bargaining for employees by giving management the ability to cancel negotiated agreements after the fact. An appeals court upheld that ruling last June, and the department decided against further appeals.

The court decision gives the department the option of either revising or abandoning the labor relations rules.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, on Monday urged DHS to simply drop its effort, rather than wait an additional six months to inform the court of its plans.

"What this agency has tried so far has failed miserably," Kelley said. "The system that senior leaders at DHS are hung up on simply will not accomplish ends that are good for the country, much less for its employees. That is why this system needs to be abandoned in its entirety."

Still, Orluskie said in February that the agency plans to correct all of the problems addressed in the lawsuit, especially as it threw out its former program known as MaxHR and expanded its reforms as part of the new Human Capital Operational Plan. Under the new plan, DHS vowed to move cautiously with reforms, specifically on pay for performance.

While the new plan is slated to involve a 2008 pay-for-performance pilot project focused solely on the employees who work in intelligence, the department is still trying to figure out exactly how and if it will test the pay portions, Orluskie said Wednesday. "We're continuing to work through the issues of the pay pilot," he said.

Lawmakers have been dealing the system some severe funding blows, cutting millions of dollars sought for implementation in preliminary versions of the Homeland Security spending bill. The House provided zero funding for the system for fiscal 2008, while the Senate Appropriations Committee provided 2008 funding of $5 million -- far less than the administration's $71 million request.

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