Agencies and Union Square Off Over Outsourcing Plans

By Eric Katz

July 22, 2014

The National Park Service and the Coast Guard say they will hire contractors for positions typically filled by civilian employees, something a federal union says is illegal.

Both agencies say they are within their legal rights. Under federal law, agencies are prohibited from contracting out certain functions performed by civilian employees.

NPS and the Coast Guard maintain that the positions they seek to fill constitute new work and do not affect existing employees. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the civilian workforce at both agencies, called the plans “illegal outsourcing” of jobs that have been “designated for performance by federal employees.” AFGE called on the Office of Management and Budget to weigh in on the debate and to issue governmentwide guidance clarifying agencies’ responsibility to keep jobs in house.

The Coast Guard wants contractors to collect new user fees at its National Vessel Documentation Center in Falling Waters, W.Va. The subagency is largely fee funded, and due to a recent drop off in business it will soon add a new annual renewal user fee. The Coast Guard said it cannot use federal employees, who have historically collected all user fees, because of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits agencies from spending more money than they have been authorized to spend by Congress. It also stressed no current federal employees will lose their jobs because of the contract.

AFGE disagrees with that assessment.

“An annual renewal user fee is just another user fee, not new work,” the union’s National President J. David Cox wrote in a letter to OMB. He added, “Why would the NVDC be able to spend money to pay contractors but not federal employees, whether permanent or temporary, to perform the same function?”

NPS also argued it could not afford new federal employees. The agency plans to contract out custodial and grounds-keeping work at the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pa. In a letter to Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., who first contacted the agency about the positions, NPS said the contract will not impact any current employees and would give it “budgetary and operational flexibility.”

“Our position is no federal employee lost their job because of the contract,” said Jane Cowley, an NPS spokeswoman.

In a second letter to OMB, AFGE’s Cox asked the Obama administration to ensure all custodial and grounds-keeping contracts that are “inconsistent with the law” are cancelled and the work is brought back in house. He added the NPS policy was an insult to AFGE itself.

“I consider NPS’ sourcing and workforce management policies to be not just inconsistent with the law, not just anti-taxpayer, and not just anti-federal employee, but also profoundly anti-union,” Cox wrote.

AFGE said the agencies did not provide the previously required cost-benefit analyses to back up the contracts, and the use of such a process is no longer legal in the cases anyway. 

CORRECTION: This story previously said functions performed by fewer than 10 civilian employees were exempt from requirements to keep jobs in house. While the relevant section in U.S. Code still provides for such an exception for non-Defense positions, a 2009 appropriations act struck the clause. 

By Eric Katz

July 22, 2014