Term-limited employees at Justice protest dismissals

Term-limited employees at the Justice Department are planning to hold a rally next Tuesday to protest the agency's plan to cut them loose.

The employees, mostly secretaries and other clerical workers, say they started working at Justice with the understanding that their positions would be permanent if they met performance expectations. The term employment arrangement was originally designed for hiring temporary paralegal workers. In the 1990s, term employment was extended to use for hiring secretaries, but those secretaries have had their terms renewed repeatedly. The Justice Department decision is expected to affect 31 clerical workers.

In late March, several Maryland lawmakers protested the move in a letter to the Justice Department.

"We are informed that some secretaries have been with the Antitrust Division as term employees for at least six years," said the letter, which was signed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. "Now the Antitrust Division wishes to end these term appointments with no consideration being given to job performance. It is our understanding that these secretaries will be replaced by new appointees who will be given lower salaries, but whose actual duties will be the same as those who are being replaced."

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment Friday, but the agency did reply to the lawmakers' message. In an April 1 letter, Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Moschella said the employees are leaving, as scheduled, at the end of their appointed terms.

"When employees are hired, they are clearly reminded that the position into which they are being hired is a term with a specified appointment end date," Moschella's letter said. "Based upon division workloads at the time of expiration, occasionally term appointments are not back-filled."

In March, Justice officials decided to offer early retirements or buyouts to 50 secretaries, in part to cut payroll costs. Federal workers' union officials said they have been told that the replacement of term employees is also to help control costs. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, however, estimates the replacement of the 31 employees will save only $75,000 annually.

AFSCME-which represents employees in the litigation division at Justice-has taken up the term employees' cause. Union officials said members from the Washington area would attend the rally.

Kurt January, a Justice employee and president of AFSCME Local 3719, said it showed "bad management to fire longtime experienced workers and hire new inexperienced ones."

Term employees feel betrayed and deceived with promises of permanent employment, according to a Justice term employee who asked not to be identified. Her immediate supervisor gave her positive performance reviews and petitioned for her to remain in the job, she said, but the decision to terminate her job came from higher up.

"There are some cases with some secretaries who left another government agency where they have been for 20 years. Why would they leave another job to come here, when it was just going to end in three or four years?" she said. "I don't know how this got so screwed up."