Ridge talks to future employees of Homeland Security Department

Homeland Security Secretary-designate Tom Ridge addressed employees' fears about the new department's organization on Tuesday during a town hall-style meeting in Washington.

"I know there's a lot of anxiety and uncertainty perhaps, but hopefully there's a lot of excitement," Ridge told the group of about 200 employees, a tiny handful of the roughly 170,000 employees pegged for the new department when it is officially launched on Jan. 24. "I know what you do and I know how well you do it, and I really believe in one department…we'll have the opportunity to do it better."

The new Homeland Security Department, created under legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Bush last month, will have a budget of nearly $37 billion and will merge 170,000 employees from 22 different agencies. On Tuesday, Ridge fielded questions ranging from the role of agencies merged into the agency to the location of the new department's headquarters.

"A couple of days ago, requirements for a headquarters building went out with five to seven days for a response, but no decision has been made," Ridge said, confirming only that the facility would be in the Washington area. "As soon as we know, we'll let you know."

Ridge tried to allay fears of a great shuffling of employees and offices while the organization gets off the ground.

"Most people will remain where they are," Ridge said. "People at the borders will stay at the border and people in the forest will stay in the forest. There's not going to be some sort of massive dislocation of employees."

Employees will not lose bargaining rights when they join the new department, Ridge said, adding that jobs would not be lost, and pay and benefits would remain intact for at least a year.

"If you're in a collective bargaining unit now, you'll be in one when you join the new department," he said, telling employees that whistleblower rights and other employee protections would not just disappear next month. The law creating the department does stipulate that, in some instances, collective bargaining rights could be overridden by the president. Ridge said Office of Personnel Management officials would create a personnel system that included performance-based measures, and at the end of the year department officials would sit down with union leaders for their input.

Ridge also discussed the working relationship department officials plan to have with state and local governments, as well as businesses and organizations.

"We want to work with the private sector to see how they're vulnerable, to share best practices . . . and work with the private sector to shore up those vulnerabilities, " Ridge said.

He also suggested that state and local governments develop protective measures to correspond with each level of the color-coded national alert system created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The warning system provides guidance to agencies and the public.

Ridge told employees he was open to hearing their suggestions for change and improvement.

"We are together in this enterprise to protect America; we unite around a common purpose and a common mission," he said. "We will only fulfill this mission if we listen to each other and work together."