Federal contractors have a role in helping Afghans get approved for special immigrant visas

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As the State Department scrambles to process thousands of special immigrant visas for Afghans trying to flee through the Kabul airport, federal contractors are playing a big role. After all, most of the Afghans who assisted U.S. forces over the years were contract employees in one way or another, and in many cases, the government needs contractors’ data to verify their service. David Berteau is president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. He talked with Federal Drive with Tom Temin about how the government is working with PSC’s member companies on this huge challenge.

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: David, thanks for joining us, as always. And so talk us through some of those discussions that your member companies are having with the government to try and speed this process up a little bit.

David Berteau: Thanks, Jared. So we started back in May, if you remember, the President’s announcement was made in April and the planning for the drawdown was proceeding a pace. We started in May and wrote to DoD, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development — the three agencies with the largest number of contract employees in Afghanistan — and said, what we need, here are some issues that we’re worried about, identifying the people, either for special immigrant visas or for other visas under P2 program, etc. These are the kinds of issues that we see, why don’t we establish a forum where we can in fact trade information and talk with one another and move forward there. We finally have that forum established, it actually had its first couple of meetings with the DoD and the State Department, the most recent one was last Friday. So there is a framework for discussion between the federal government and the trade associations that represent the companies. That’s a positive step, a little bit late to the game, but nonetheless, we’re taking full advantage of it. So most of our companies, most of our member companies, who have had employees over there. And keep in mind, this goes all the way back to October of 2001., so a lot of record keeping has to come into play. Three big hang ups here. Number one is getting the forms filled out properly so you can get a visa account number, a system number, and get the processing started. Many people have had their applications filled out for years, and they don’t even have them finalized and approved yet. So we want to make sure the data get done as fast as possible. The second is we want to make sure that the reviews are done as fast as possible. And now that they’re being done remotely, actually, they started being done remotely out of instead of in in the embassy in Kabul, started being done remotely I think back in in June. And then the third is once a decision is made, how do you get people moved? And how do you protect them and keep them safe between now and then? So all of these we’re working with the government to try to do a better job. And with the company’s hard thing to find out. So you can have a company, for example, said to me, we’ve got two people with the same name. And in Afghanistan, sometimes there are a lot of individuals with the same name, and it’s only one name. So specific identification gets harder. We’ve had some success, legislation has reduced the requirements, for instance it only has to be one year of employment now instead of two years of employment, and the proof of employment is a little easier to come up with. There’s also the issue of subcontractors. What if you work for a subcontractor? To you, you thought you were working for company X, but in reality you were working for an Afghans company that in many cases is no longer in existence. And so all of these are issues that we’re trying to work through. The main objective, though, is to identify the people, keep them safe, get them out of the country, and get them into the process.

Jared Serbu: Identifying people is hard enough, but I guess one other thing I wonder is the eligibility criteria clear enough? Is it as straightforward as if you worked on a contract in Afghanistan between 2001 and now you’re eligible or is it more complicated than that?

David Berteau: It’s more complicated. So there’s an initial eligibility, which is 365 days of employment between October 7, 2001 and December 31, 2023. Well, that’s more than two years out, so the last two years of that obviously don’t count. But that is only the first set of criteria. The second set of criteria is that you’ve got to have been a valuable and useful employee. And there are all kinds of disqualifying attributes that could be part of that process. It’s an open ended question on the questionnaire, anything negative to report on this individual, any denigrating commentary that you might make? And you have to fill that out without knowing what’s disqualifying, right. So an example could be, you may have terminated that employee because they flunked a polygraph, right. Well, that’s not disqualifying from the State Department’s point of view. And so you wouldn’t just put security clearance pulled, you would put why. Well, in many cases, for somebody in 2005 or 2006, or 2007, that material is no longer in the files, especially if it’s a subcontractor for a company that doesn’t exist. So there’s multiple layers of of characteristics that have to be gone through here before you get even to the point of being thoroughly reviewed, much less approved.

Jared Serbu: Are companies opening up their books to the government so they can access those sorts of questions directly or is this really fall on the company’s to answer those questionnaires?

David Berteau: To the extent we can, we’re automating some of this with the government. And so far, this has only been with the Defense Department, we’re hoping to see similar progress with the State Department and with US Agency for International Development, where the companies can input the data directly from their HR systems, and the government can use that to help populate the form and certify the employment and begin moving forward through the process. There is a heavy burden on the companies at the front end, we’d like to automate that as much as possible to get it into the government’s hands. And that’ll speed up the process. It’s also my understanding that the State Department is actually now, because there’s a big backlog of visas, right, not just for Afghanistan special immigrants, but nationwide and worldwide. And so they’re separating out so where there’s a more dedicated capability to focus entirely on the Afghan SIV applicants. But then you’ve got the third country nationals that have to come in through a different visa program. Many of our companies, employees who were in Afghanistan, were third country nationals, not just Afghans, and all of them deserve our protection and our best efforts to get them out and get them to safety, if that’s what they want, and they qualify.

Jared Serbu: And David, let’s pivot from one very chaotic situation to a slightly less chaotic situation, which is the government’s implementation of the vaccine slash testing mandate for employees and contractors. Some news on the vaccine front, which is Pfizer getting full FDA approval yesterday. To what extent does that change things, simplified things, make things more straightforward? Do we know yet?

David Berteau: It certainly removes one objection to why I don’t want to get vaccinated, right. So for those who have not obtained a vaccine because they didn’t want to get vaccinated with a substance that was approved only under emergency use authorization, now it’s fully licensed, and so it no longer can carry that. And I think we’ll see the same thing in a few weeks with the Moderna vaccine as well, my expectations the dates are moving forward along a similar process. So it removes one of the objections, but it doesn’t actually change the numbers that much at least overnight. And so the challenge has been that the government is putting a test program in place or requirement to test if you’re either not vaccinated, or if you declined to answer. And they’re implementing it differently for federal civilian employees than they are for government contractors. They’ve stated for federal civilian employees that the government will pay for the testing., and the requirements will be the same for all civilian employees and all agencies. For contractors, what we’ve seen already is some agencies have a single requirement that they put out that applies to every contractor, every on-site contractor that is for that agency, others are doing it one contract at a time, and still others haven’t put out any guidance at all. But individual programs and activities in those agencies are putting out their own requirements. This is not so bad if you have an individual who works full time all the time every day for the same contract with the same contractor at the same location. That’s not the case. We have companies I just got off the phone with one of our CEOs, more than half of his workforce works on more than one contract at a time. You could easily end up with a contractor and contract worker who has two or three or four or five different regimes, they have to carry different forms to fill out different documents. It’s chaos. And none of this achieves the real objective, which is to get more people vaccinated. PSC is arguing two things. Number one consistent guidance across all the agencies for contractors. Number two, the government pays for the extra costs to do the testing regimes that the companies will incur. There’s a real challenge companies have here as well though, which is, how many of my employees am I willing to put at risk? You’ve seen the survey data, right. 52% of workers think that vaccines should be mandated. 30% think that vaccines should not be mandated, and if you mandate them I’ll think about going somewhere else. And the other group is if you don’t mandate it, I’ll think about going somewhere else. This is not a prescription for win/win, right. Especially in a tight labor market where your main difficulty is in getting the workers you need to meet the government’s needs. So this has got to be worked out to where in fact it achieves the government’s objectives, but still supports the missions.

Jared Serbu: Just want to clarify something you said a minute ago, which is that some agencies are doing this one contract at a time. I mean, are they taking the position that they have to do formal contract modifications to implement this?

David Berteau: No. But what we’ve seen, we’ve had our members forward to us is an email from a contracting officer says for contract and the contract number is in there, here’s the requirements you have to follow. The company that gave me that one example, for instance, says, I’ve gotten three contracts with this one agency, this is the only contract for which I’ve received guidance so far. Now, by the way, my employees are working on all three of these contracts. And so I have to follow it, for one, and literally it says fill out the form, the attestation form that says I have been vaccinated, carry it around with you and show it to anybody who asked. Anybody who asked, Jared. Now not everybody has the right to know the answer to that question. These are the kinds of chaotic things that have to be resolved. If we assume that the government’s objective is to beat the virus. And if we assume, as I think is a valid assumption, the vaccines are one very strong way. Now, back to your original question. The licensure of the vaccine by the FDA, I think, makes it easier to mandate than it was before. But no company wants to be the only one mandating because it puts you at a competitive disadvantage in a very tight labor marketplace. And so this is where we really need government consistency and government guidance to aim to achieving the objectives.

Jared Serbu: All right, David Berteau, President and CEO of the Professional Services Council. Thanks as always David.

David Berteau: All right. Thank you, Jared

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