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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

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The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday announced the arrival of a new labor relations chief who will be responsible for meeting with unions and leveling the compensation playing field between union and nonunion employees at the agency.

FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey named Joseph Miniace as the agency's deputy assistant administrator for strategic labor management relations. In a press release, she said he "has a proven track record in strategic labor relations" and "a wealth of experience."

As Miniace arrives at the agency, however, he will be faced with a daunting task. A group of FAA employees has filed an administrative complaint against the agency alleging age discrimination. Under the FAA's performance pay system, more than 800 long-term employees have reached the top of their pay bands and are not eligible to receive base salary increases. Those employees, however, can receive annual awards for good performance. At the same time, thousands of other FAA employees are not affected by the salary freezing because of union agreements.

FAA officials have repeatedly said that the solution to the disparity is not to remove the restrictions from the disgruntled employees, but rather to apply the same rules to unionized workers.

"One of the real strong undercurrents to the whole pay banding issue is the perceived inequity among one group of employees as opposed to other groups of employees," said FAA spokesman Greg Martin. "One way to address the perceived inequities is to align the compensation of bargaining unit employees more closely with all of the FAA…. That's probably the single most important thing you can do to address the inequities."

Officials have acknowledged that this process will not be easy or quick. In December, Ventris Gibson, FAA's assistant administrator for human resource management, said it is "not very easy to do ... especially when you have the types of unions that we have."

The FAA believes that Miniace is the one to do it. He comes to the federal government from the Pacific Maritime Association, where he served as president and negotiated a labor contract with the The International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Martin said it was essential to "bring in an expert" to deal with the situation.

"The bottom line is, it's a very heavily unionized workforce … you need to bring a person of Mr. Miniace's caliber," he said. The agency needs "some strategic and cohesive approach in working with a heavily unionized workforce."

National Air Traffic Controllers Association Executive Vice President Ruth Marlin said that her organization has been attempting to work through several pay agreements with the agency. She expressed hope that the appointment of Miniace was a stop in the right direction.

"Hopefully they are bringing someone in who understands good faith bargaining," Marlin said.

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