Union bristles at background checks required under ID mandate

By Daniel Pulliam

June 5, 2007

A governmentwide identification card mandate intended to strengthen security has sparked concerns among a group of federal employees about the investigative process that workers must undergo before receiving the new credential.

Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, all federal employees and contractors must begin using new high tech ID cards to access government offices and computers. But before the slips of plastic emblazoned with photographs and loaded with computer chips can be issued, agencies have to verify the recipients' identity and make sure they have complete background investigations on file.

The National Federation of Federal Employees has raised objections to new background checks being conducted for 725 General Services Administration workers as a result of the mandate. The employees, who have less than 15 years of seniority, were "missing the required background investigations," GSA officials told the union.

The latest protest follows criticisms in April from a group of scientists at a NASA laboratory. The scientists urged lawmakers to take action to end to the practice of gathering extensive personal information -- including racial, ethnic, financial and medical details -- as part of the background investigations.

The 725 GSA employees have been given forms identical to those handed to applicants for government jobs and will be required to submit a resume, the union said. They also have been told that a credit check may be conducted.

According to the union, GSA officials said the forms will be submitted to the Office of Personnel Management and the FBI to assist GSA in making sure its workers are "suitable for federal employment." The investigations are being conducted by a contractor, the union said.

Charles Paidock, a regional vice president for NFFE in Chicago, said that the union is filing an unfair labor practice charge against GSA since the agency refused to meet with union officials or provide information regarding the investigative process and criteria that will be used to determine whether the employees are suitable.

"We don't want to stop them from doing their security thing, but we do want to know what they are doing," Paidock said. "You have people on board at the agency and you don't have the proper documentation? It's inconceivable. What documents are missing?"

Paidock said he requested negotiations on the process and information to determine precisely what GSA was doing to protect employees who might be adversely affected by these investigations.

"A career civil service employee could be terminated if found not to be 'suitable,' " Paidock said.

Art Valero, director of GSA's labor relations division, said in a statement that the agency provided all applicable information concerning HSPD12 that it is permitted to release by law. He said many of the proposals submitted by NFFE were not negotiable because they are covered by the union's existing national agreement or because they conflicted with existing government regulations.

Valero also said NFFE failed to identify how HSPD 12 adversely affected employees.

"At this time, the agency has met its bargaining obligations," Valero said. "Any disagreements as to the agency's action can be pursued through the avenues available to NFFE."

Meanwhile, officials are combing a database of more senior GSA employees (those with more than 15 years of service) to ensure they have the proper security paperwork. At a minimum, this involves an OPM-conducted "national agency check with inquiries," said Rosena Duryee, a security specialist in the personnel security requirements division of GSA's Office of Human Resources Services.

Since the early 1950s, federal employees have been required to undergo some sort of investigation to determine their suitability, Duryee said. The level varies depending on the level of risk associated with the position.

Under HSPD 12, all employees receiving the new ID card must have an investigation on file. In some cases, OPM might not have the information at all, Duryee said, or if an employee moved from one agency to another, the information might not have transferred with the employee.

In a related matter, Trey Hodgkins, senior director for defense and intelligence programs at the Information Technology Association of America, said the group still has concerns about OPM's ability to process the estimated 10 million background checks that will be required under the HSPD 12 mandate.

"This extends down to the cleaning crews and the guys filling the Coke machine," Hodgkins said. "You're going to find people who have never been through any investigation."

By Daniel Pulliam

June 5, 2007