Union to fight FDA plan to put jobs up for competition

Studies could lead to contracting out more than 300 "commercial" positions; agency has set up intranet site to inform employees about the process.

A large independent federal employee union said Wednesday that it is prepared to go to Congress to fight a Food and Drug Administration move to consider contracting out more than 300 jobs.

The National Treasury Employees Union "is looking at every possible angle to prevent the contracting out of these jobs," said Colleen Kelley, the union's president. "NTEU will keep members of Congress informed about the contracting out efforts."

Kelley said her organization, which represents about 5,000 FDA employees, had made contact with lawmakers in response to an earlier FDA proposal to shut down more than half of its laboratories nationwide. The plan came to a halt partly due to congressional pressure.

The recent restructuring identifies 332 positions as "commercial," which means the work legitimately could be contracted out to the private sector under existing regulations. The FDA announced on July 12 that it will conduct 13 studies in three overlapping rounds, intended to find out whether contractors could more efficiently perform the work.

The union has opposed the move from the start. "It is a disgrace that given the recent crises we have experienced with our food supply and other imports that FDA would entertain the idea of outsourcing this work," said Kelley, who characterized the studies being undertaken as "contracting just for the sake of contracting."

Despite the union's early opposition, the FDA has yet to determine whether any of the jobs will be contracted out, and the agency has stated a commitment to counseling employees through the process.

"We will provide training for affected employees, [and] establish an informational intranet site and a dedicated e-mail address for the staff to use to submit questions," said Alfonzo Hilliard, director of labor and employee relations for the Health and Human Services Department, of which the FDA is a part. Hilliard wrote to the union when the contracting surveys were first announced, outlining the support FDA planned to offer affected employees.

Christopher Kelly, FDA spokesman, said the agency has established the informational intranet site already and plans to "share additional information" as necessary. "It is the FDA's intent to protect its most valuable [resource] -- its people," Kelly said. He also said that none of the jobs being considered for outsourcing were "directly involved in conducting inspection and enforcement activities."

NTEU leader Kelley did not identify which members of Congress the union plans to approach, or additional steps the union is planning to fight any contracting that might arise. "Through our work to prevent the FDA lab closures, NTEU has developed relationships with members of Congress in many districts where FDA employees are located, as well as with members who are active on FDA issues," she said.

Kelly, the FDA spokesman, added that the studies of potential jobs to outsource are required of the FDA, just as they are required of other federal agencies. "The FDA is obligated to support competitive sourcing initiatives set forth by [the Office of Management and Budget] and HHS in response to the President's Management Agenda," he said.

The FDA has started four of the 13 studies. The studies are slated to end Sept. 28, according to union representatives. FDA neither confirmed nor denied the proposed end date.