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DHS employee appeals go to the top of the pile

Merit Systems Protection Board officials say provisions in the new Homeland Security personnel system require the agency to start giving priority to its cases.

In an effort to meet strict new processing standards that the Homeland Security Department will mandate later this year, the Merit Systems Protection Board's Washington-based Office of Appeals Counsel has launched a formal process of reviewing DHS cases before most cases from other agencies.

"Our goal is not to have to do this," said MSPB General Counsel Martha B. Schneider. "We want to treat all cases equally."

But with the new processing standards set for fall implementation, Schneider said MSPB decided to get a jump-start on meeting DHS prescribed limits on processing times.

The actions stem from the 2002 Homeland Security Act, which not only created DHS, but also gave it permission to decide rules governing everything from pay to labor-management bargaining to employee discipline. MSPB is an independent federal agency that adjudicates employee appeals of agency disciplinary decisions.

When Homeland Security officials announced details of the new personnel rules in February, they included several changes that will require MSPB to adjudicate appeals from DHS employees using different standards from those for the rest of federal government. The rules also require that MSPB judges issue initial decisions within 90 days. Cases that are appealed to the full MSPB in Washington will also have to be decided within 90 days. For cases stemming from mandatory-removal offenses-as yet undefined misconduct-MSPB will have to decide appeals within 30 days, or in some instances, 45 days.

Last week, MSPB Chairman Neil McPhie told House lawmakers that the agency would need additional staff to meet the DHS time frames. But President Bush's 2006 budget request for MSPB, $37 million, is the same as the agency's 2005 budget.

In 2004, MSPB administrative judges reached initial decisions on cases in 89 days on average, but that average also includes cases that settled. The agency's standard requirement is that judges issue decisions within 120 days. The gap is bigger at the appeals level, where cases go to MSPB in Washington. There, the average case was pending for 141 days in 2004. About 20 percent of the 6,200 cases that MSPB judges heard in 2004 were appealed before the board.

Schneider said the agency has not yet evaluated the success of its expedited procedures for DHS cases, but officials want to find efficiencies that will reduce processing times across the board. "Our hope is to continue a first-in, first-out system" for all cases, said Schneider.