Labor Trouble Brews at Marshals Service

By Stephen Barr

The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 9, 2008; D04

There are some unhappy employees at the U.S. Marshals Service.

About 220 criminal investigators at the Justice Department agency have formed Marshals Unified to protest a “conversion program” that permits deputy marshals to become criminal investigators without going through the regular civil service competition for jobs.

“The new conversion program, in effect, violates federal merit-system principles that dictate fair implementation and execution of the hiring and promotion practices of federal agencies,” lawyers for Marshals Unified wrote to John F. Clark, director of the Marshals Service.

The dispute, which has gone on for months, demonstrates the ill feelings that can develop in federal agencies when officials change hiring and promotion practices to fill gaps in staffing or meet the demands of increased workloads. Those bad feelings often turn into grievances or court actions if employees perceive that agency managers have no interest in acting on their complaints.

In the Marshals Service case, the conversion program has allowed deputy marshals to become criminal investigators while putting in less time to reach the top career position — General Schedule grade 12 — for that occupation, according to lawyers for the investigators who have filed grievances. It permits an investigator to rise to GS-12 a year or two sooner than investigators who followed the regular merit promotion rules.

The program often allows those who convert to be paid more, despite having less experience than investigators in the older merit system. Every paycheck issued to a converted investigator represents a violation of the government’s principle of equal pay for equal work, the lawyers said.

When some investigators complained about the conversion program to Clark, they were told to take their concerns to the agency’s human resources office, according to the lawyers.

After several months passed with no attention, the investigators sent a letter to Clark through their lawyers. The agency directed them to file individual grievances, and 181 did so.

The grievances, however, were denied by the agency because of “untimeliness,” according to a letter from David Anderson, the deputy assistant director for human resources at the Marshals Service.

The grievances were filed in January, too long after the conversions took place, from May 2003 to August 2006, he wrote.

David Turner, a Marshals Service spokesman, said in an e-mail that the deputy conversion program was developed “to enhance the efficiency” of the agency, which has tried to make the program “as fair as possible.”

Turner said he could not comment further because grievances are pending.

William L. Bransford, one of the lawyers representing Marshals Unified, said a second grievance has been filed and investigators are awaiting a response from the agency. About 300 marshals were put at a financial disadvantage because of the conversion program, Bransford said.

“You would think an agency with that many unhappy employees would talk to them,” he said.

Nominee for Labor Relations Authority

B. Chad Bungard has been nominated by the president for a five-year term as general counsel of the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

If confirmed by the Senate, he would replace Colleen Duffy Kiko, who left last month to become a member of the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board at the Labor Department.

Federal unions prefer that the general counsel’s position be filled at the Labor Relations Authority in hopes that their claims will be prosecuted and that the administration will pay more attention to labor-management disputes.

Bungard is general counsel of the Merit Systems Protection Board. Previously he was chief counsel and deputy staff director of the federal workforce subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee