Commerce Pay Plan Fought

Commerce Pay Plan Fought

A demonstration project planned for more than 3,000 employees at the Commerce Department that would change the way workers are classified and paid is being criticized for taking away civil service protections.

Tanya Ward Jordan, an employee in the office of financial management at Commerce, has launched a campaign to stop the project from starting. Jordan says the project has unfair reduction-in-force rules and would hurt minorities by giving managers too much discretion in hiring practices. She also says employees would be unfairly forced to compete with managers for a fixed amount of money for raises.

"Most employees would welcome a system that fairly recognizes employees for their performance," Jordan said. "Unfortunately, the proposed system will not accomplish this goal."

Under the demonstration project, which is scheduled to take effect in February, employees would be classified under broad pay bands that would combine the numerous steps and grades of the General Schedule. In addition, automatic annual pay increases would be eliminated and replaced with performance-based raises and incentives. The project would allow supervisors to reward employees for superb performance with bonuses of up to $10,000.

Former Commerce Department human resources management director Elizabeth Stroud, who recently retired, said the project will give managers more control over how their employees are rewarded. "We will move away from management decisions being made in the human resources department," she said.

But Jordan sees the potential for abuse under such a system. She cites a 1991 review of a similar demonstration project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology by the Office of Personnel Management, which found that the percentage of African-American support personnel hired at NIST dropped from 21 percent to 8 percent after the demonstration project started. Jordan says Commerce has a serious problem with discrimination.

"Authorizing expanded direct hiring within any agency would be unfair when there is knowledge that the department partakes in discriminatory practices," Jordan said. "Implementing such a feature only fosters bias practices."

The demonstration project plan is also being criticized because it changes reduction-in-force rules to make performance evaluations more important than seniority in RIF decisions. The plan would give employees in the top 10 percent of office evaluations protection in the event of a RIF. Those below the 10 percent mark would not be protected.

Rosalie Shaffer, a National Association of Government Employees official at the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service center in Panama City, Fla., says the union there opted out of the demonstration project for several reasons, including the RIF feature. Shaffer says the union likes the idea of pay banding, but was told other features of the demonstration project could not be negotiated.

"I think they could come up with a much simpler program," Shaffer says.

The union was also wary of the "pay pool" feature of the project, which would direct money currently used for automatic increases toward performance-based raises. The union was worried that some good employees would not get raises because star employees would be given most of the money set aside for performance-based rewards, Shaffer says.

Stewart Remer, acting director of human resources at Commerce, says the project has safeguards to prevent abuse and guidelines to make sure employees who are solid, but not exceptional, are rewarded for their work.

The project would be tested at portions of five Commerce Department organizations: the Office of the Secretary, the Office of Technology Administration, the Economics and Statistics Administration, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A final notice for the project is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register in November.

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