With the threat of a government shutdown once again looming, the nation's largest union for federal workers is suing the Office of Management and Budget to release agency contingency plans in an effort to give employees some idea of what they can expect if Congress can't agree on a new funding measure by Friday.
Each federal agency is required to create a contingency plan for a shutdown, but after receiving no response to repeated attempts to obtain those plans through Freedom of Information Act requests, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President John Gage announced today that the union had filed suit in U.S. District Court late last week.
"I don't see how having a plan and not keeping your employees informed of the plan helps anyone," Gage said at an event at the National Press Club this morning. "We're not trying to say that our people won't stand up for the jobs that they love, but I think the American public and President Obama's administration should understand that people have families, they have obligations, they should know before the eve of a shutdown what is happening."
Gage's group is making its own contingency plans.
This week, AFGE is continuing to run an ad blitz on 100 radio stations that urges public employees to contact Congress to oppose cuts to the federal government. And if a government shutdown does occur, Gage said his organization will file another lawsuit on behalf of the many federal employees whose services would be deemed "essential" and therefore be forced to work but who would not paid until the budget crisis is resolved. That lawsuit would be filed under the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude.
If the shutdown stretches into next week, Gage plans to call on all federal employees to show up at their offices anyway on either Tuesday or Wednesday.
"If they don't let them into work, the American public at least can see that federal employees know the importance of their jobs," he said.
And while he was critical of the White House for its failure to keep employees informed about shutdown plans, Gage didn't spare Congress for playing what he described as partisan games with the livelihood of federal workers. He was particularly critical of the deep cuts that Republicans have proposed in their various funding measures.
"When you look at where these cuts are, you can see it's not a deficit issue, it is about going after programs that a certain group never liked to begin with," he said.
Gage pointed to U.S. EPA as a clear example of that effort.
If the GOP gets its way at EPA, "it will really hit inspections, it will really hit water and air" regulations, he said.
Looking beyond the looming threat of a shutdown, Gage also defended federal employees against ongoing efforts to cut the annual "step increases" that are still allowed for despite the two-year pay freeze that President Obama announced late last year. That effort is being led by Republicans in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
On Friday, committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and federal workforce Subcommittee Chairman Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking for a study of the current General Schedule pay adjustment system and specifically whether that system recognizes employee performance. Ross spokesman Fred Piccolo today described the General Schedule system as a failure.
"Rep. Ross spent 20 years as a business owner," Piccolo said. "There are common-sense business practices that the federal government must employ."
For example, he said, the federal government could extend to two years the probationary period for a new hire so that person's effectiveness can be determined. It could also utilize performance metrics rather than years of service to determine who gets promoted.
"The federal pay system is inflexible, rewards longevity and stagnation, and is not conducive to a mobile and skilled 21st-century workforce," Piccolo said. He said that whatever system is included in legislation that will be proposed through the committee "will be to the benefit of performing federal employees and an end for those addicted to the status quo."
Gage said federal employees could certainly use a much simpler performance management system but said that they deserve the raises they do get under the current system.
"You might have to just recognize that federal employees do a pretty good job; they are well educated; they are seasoned employees," he said.