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Employee Protections Outlined in A-76 Meeting
By Rich McManus
Photos by Bill Branson
On the Front Page...
With the spotlight of A-76, or competitive outsourcing, now focusing on functions within the fields of grants and real property management, NIH managers of the HHS- and administration-mandated review held their second Town Meeting on the subject Mar. 5 at Natcher Auditorium; their presentation assured federal workers that the process is not adversarial, gives incumbents sufficient means to win the "price-cost shootout" with competitors from private industry (or other government agencies, which can also bid on NIH work) and outlined a proposal for a new NIH Transition Center for workers whose jobs are being abolished, whether through A-76, consolidation or reorganization.
"We realize that A-76 review is a technical, legal, emotional issue," said Tom Fitzpatrick, head of the commercial activities review team (CART), the entity charged with implementing the A-76 process at NIH that began 2 years ago. By FY 2004, NIH must review 25 percent of the 9,300+ jobs that are not "inherently governmental" and therefore could potentially be done by outside contractors. The Natcher crowd was intent on knowing whose job is up for review, why them, who's next, and is there any recourse?
Functions, not actual people or their individual performance, are the subject of A-76 review, assured Fitzpatrick. Functions are picked based on where NIH feels it can best improve its mission, said Tim Wheeles, director of the Division of Management Support. "Our steering committee looked at all functions and ranked those with the greatest opportunities for improvement," he said. "A lot of scores were very close, but it's the best tool we had. NIH is determined to get the most out of this process, resulting in a better NIH."
In FY 2003, a full generic competition is ongoing in grants (including program management, review and administrative support), real property (facilities) management, and "other opportunities," a catch-all category that enables the review teams to be flexible about their targets. In FY 2004, the targets are fire prevention, the balance of what didn't get done in FY 2003, and, again, "other opportunities." The undefined nature of the latter category was the cause of some concern among potentially affected employees. Said Ed Burns, an ORS electrician who is also secretary of the local union (American Federation of Government Employees), "Employees wonder, 'When's that other foot going to drop on me?'"
Offering assurance that the A-76 process is proceeding as beneficently as possible at NIH was John Czajkowski, acting director of the Office of Strategic Management Planning, who described the services being considered for the new NIH Transition Center.
He said the proposal to establish a center for those affected by A-76 or other consolidation or reorganization processes going on around NIH is still being reviewed by NIH management officials. "These are difficult processes for everybody, and we know that it's a lot of upheaval for everyone," Czajkowski admitted. "But you have to remember that the number of employees affected is a very small percentage of the workforce.
"HHS expects us to take care of our own employees," he continued. His goal is to match skills with agency needs or help employees develop new skills, as well as keep stress levels down. "There are a lot of tough decisions for employees and NIH to make. But I can assure you there are no plans to run a RIF (reduction in force, or layoff) that's off the table. And the Secretary of HHS has said, 'Everyone will have a job.'"
He made additional points: "If you want to stay with federal service, you can. No one is going to be forced out of federal service. You will maintain your grade and pay if you stay with the government." Workers may be placed in other assignments through "directed reassignments" or "priority placements," which means a worker whose job has been abolished gains a preferred status when applying for another federal opening at NIH.
Czajkowski said that a worker whose job is abolished might be able to find new work right away, via reassignment, to his or her institute or center. If that doesn't happen, the worker is referred to the Transition Center, where he or she can get career and placement counseling, and can adopt a training plan designed to land the worker in a new job.
The Transition Center will feature two levels of service, Czajkowski said: a basic level, offering resume-writing seminars and other simple job-finding techniques, and more intensive services, such as retraining for new careers, tailored to an individual's skills and interest, when the option of placement is not imminent.
Employees referred to the center are still attached to their old positions, but are on what is known as "unclassified duties" detail; this status comes in renewable 120-day increments, and can last over a year, Czajkowski said. During this period, the employee keeps grade and pay level, and can take advantage of the center's services. Supervisors of detailees in this status are responsible only for tracking the worker's time and attendance.
Czajkowski said two separation incentives are under consideration: early-outs, via VERA (voluntary early retirement authority) will be available for commercial or administrative positions; and buyouts for up to $25,000 have been requested of the Office of Personnel Management. Because A-76 rules are currently being revised by the Office of Management and Budget (a draft revised circular was published last November and changes to the program are due in early April), Czajkowski counseled employees to "keep an ear out so you're aware of changes to the program."
Potential adverse impacts of A-76 on certain communities are under study by the Office of Equal Opportunity, Czajkowski said, but added, "NIH ran the transition plan by everyone who had a stake in the process, including NIH's EEO office, the Diversity Council, and the Office of Human Resources."
Czajkowski said that affected employees would be in a transition status until a placement opportunity was found. Although that could last indefinitely, depending on the individual case, employees can be placed at any time and should not expect to be in transition for more than one year. He also assured that reassigned workers would remain in their current commuting area, as defined by the government.
"There are no guarantees that you won't get studied again in your new position," he cautioned. "A-76 is not a hold-your-breath kind of thing." He advised employees to "stay positive, and avoid rumors and speculation. You might never need the Transition Center." He said employees with further concerns should see their supervisor or executive officer. He encouraged NIH'ers that "the incumbent is always in a position of advantage, like in an election. Most people are pretty competitive in their positions. But we tend to act sometimes as if there's been a death in the family...It's in everyone's interest to cooperate with the process. This is still a great place to work, and it always will be in my mind."
During Q's and A's, Czajkowski emphasized that the goal of A-76 review is not to contract jobs out, but to conduct the required study. "It's not about anybody's individual performance; it's not a referendum on how well you do your job. But you might be asked to help out the agency's mission in another place."
Fitzpatrick noted that if employees choose to go to a private sector job with a contractor, whatever rules apply to that environment would be the rules that apply to those former employees. "The right of first refusal doesn't guarantee employees a job with a contractor, that they will keep the job if they get it, or that they will get a certain salary," he explained. Wheeles assured a questioner that the health scientist administrator position is not scheduled to be competed.
Someone asked, "If no one is going to lose their job through this process, how can A-76 be cost-effective?" Answered Czajkowski, "It's conceded that this process is more expensive in the short run, and cheaper in the long run that's the theory. The idea is that the initial cost will be worth it over time." Fitzpatrick mentioned that it is the Bush administration's goal to institutionalize A-76 review, which is one of five items on the President's management agenda.
To keep up with new developments in the A-76 field, visit http://a-76.nih.gov.
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