NSPS Express: Train Wreck or Rest Stop?

Which is trickier? Being forced to jump, blindfolded, aboard a moving train chartered by Congress or, after a journey of several years, being ordered by Congress to jump off at or near your original departure point?

The above example is the way a confused Defense Department civilian described her “ordeal.” Several years after Congress drafted her, and nearly a quarter of a million DoD civilians, for service in the controversial pay-for-performance system, a new Congress had told everybody to get off.

As usual when Congress changes federal job rules it has left the considerable details, i.e. avoiding a train wreck or cleaning it up if one occurs, to career civil servants. It this case that is the NSPS Transition Office of Personnel Management in Arlington, Va. Director John J. James Jr., and his staff have the unenviable task of squeezing the toothpaste back into the tube.

The first transitions from NSPS pay bands back to regular GS grades began last month. The target is to have at least half, perhaps more, workers recycled by this fall. About one in every four people under NSPS will go back into other federal pay systems outside the GS schedule. They range from people stationed in or near the Pentagon to Defense centers in Europe and the Middle East.

The problem, as many involved feds see it, is they are going back to spots in civil service land that no longer exist, or won’t be a comfortable fit.

A number of employees (and the number is in dispute) did much better under NSPS than they would have had they remained under the more rigid GS pay system. One worker described himself, under NSPS, as the equivalent of a GS 14 step 15, meaning he was making thousands of dollars more in salary under NSPS.

The American Federal of Government Employees union took the lead in derailing NSPS. It said the Bush administration failed to consult unions about the design or implementation of NSPS, and that too many workers were cycled into NSPS too quickly. Opponents of the plan say it was a tool/implement to enable the then Secretary of Defense to get greater control – critics say a stranglehold – over the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Defense eventually agreed to exempt workers covered by union bargaining agreements from NSPS membership. Many of those moved into the new pay-banding program were in supervisory type jobs and are represented by the Federal Managers Association.

Backers of the NSPS say some/many people under it did better (as in bigger raises and quicker promotions) because they deserved them, and the system worked as advertised.

Opponents say Defense threw money at the program and that it was a political shell game to make it look like the new system worked: And to stick it to unions who refused to play.

Also at issue is how many people will return to the GS fold and be subject to reduced pay raises in future, until their pay catches up to their new/old GS level.

The AFGE has said the number of people who will go into saved pay (meaning half pay raises in future) will be relatively small.

The FMA says that “of almost 22,000 employees who have converted back to the GS already, just shy of 3,500 (16 percent) of them are under pay retention.” Pay retention means they will get half of the future GS pay raises until their colleagues catch up. The president has proposed a 1.4 percent GS pay raise next year which, for those under saved pay, would translate into a 0.7 percent increase.

Time-In-Grade Waiver

Under the regular GS pay system workers get longevity pay raises every one, two or three years of satisfactory service. Those raises are worth about 3 percent and are in addition to any regular January pay raise.

OPM recently granted the NSPS Transition team its request for an expanded waiver of time-in-grade restrictions “for actions related to the NSPS conversion from NSPS to GS.” The waiver applies for the transition period through January, 2012.

Permitting workers to count their NSPS time toward time-in-grade should lessen the need for, or shorten time in, saved-pay status.

To reach me: mcausey@federalnewsradio.com

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