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Initiative May Put Employees With Special Needs At a Decided Disadvantage, Their Advocates Say
David Goodman, a clerk at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, is caught between two conflicting federal policies, one that helped him get his federal job 14 years ago and another that soon may take it away.
Goodman, 34, has autism, a developmental disability that affects the brain and impairs a person's social skills and reasoning. He landed his job in NIH's Occupational Health and Safety Division in 1991 as a
Last month, his family learned that Goodman is among tens of thousands of federal employees, the vast majority of them not disabled, whose agencies are evaluating whether their jobs could be performed better and more cheaply by a private contractor. It is all part of President Bush's
The initiative has thrown a scare into many federal workers, who are anxious about whether they will be forced to go to work for a private contractor or find themselves with no job at all. But the policy is especially vexing for employees with disabilities and their advocates. They fear that a strict economic comparison puts such workers at a decided disadvantage because they often require more supervision and extra help, and therefore cost more to employ.
Advocates say Bush's focus on the bottom line ignores the fact that for decades, through various policies and laws, federal agencies have gone out of their way to hire members of certain populations, from veterans to disabled people to welfare mothers and students. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, for instance, banned discrimination against disabled people in federal hiring and required agencies to develop plans to hire and promote more people with disabilities.
The competitive sourcing policy also flies in the face of more recent efforts under the Bush administration's New Freedom Initiative to promote opportunities for disabled people and better integrate them into the general workforce, the advocates say.
Timothy J. Wheeles, the federal manager in charge of competitive sourcing at NIH, said he agrees. The agency values the diversity of its workforce, he said, and many managers and colleagues are worried about what competitive sourcing will mean for employees such as Goodman.
Wheeles said he has tried -- unsuccessfully -- to find some loophole to safeguard Goodman's job and those of other workers with special needs. But nothing in Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, the regulations that govern the job competitions, allows that, Wheeles said. And federal law requiring merit to be the governing principle in personnel matters prohibits giving disabled employees preferential treatment over other civil servants after they have been hired under special policies, he said.
David Safavian, the OMB official who oversees the competitive sourcing policy, said he could not comment on the specific circumstances of the NIH issue. But more broadly,
Goodman's duties at NIH include data entry, filing, photocopying documents, delivering mail and faxes and going out to get office supplies, his mother said. The job has helped him build relationships with co-workers and earn enough money to live independently. Some people with autism cannot function as well as Goodman has.
Her son does not understand that his job may be in jeopardy, she said.
Goodman and three other employees with special needs are among the 18 full-time administrative support workers whose jobs are under review for possible takeover by a contractor, Wheeles said. In all, 340 full-time positions at NIH are slated for such reviews this year, including those of food service workers, employees who operate and repair medical equipment, and others who work in information technology. Six to eight of those jobs are held by workers with special needs, he said.
Federal workers have been fairly successful in the competitions. About 30,168 positions government-wide were evaluated for contracting out over the past two years, and the in-house team triumphed about 90 percent of the time, according to OMB figures.
Wheeles also noted that top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, NIH's parent agency, have said that employees whose jobs are shifted to the private sector can get new training and another federal job within the department, so no one will be thrown out of work.
That is still not good enough, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), whose district includes the NIH. Two years ago, he intervened in a similar dispute over a job competition involving 21 mentally retarded cafeteria workers at the National Naval Medical Center. The Navy suspended the competition indefinitely after Van Hollen inquired about it and after The Washington Post began working on an article.
Van Hollen introduced legislation April 5 that would prohibit federal agencies engaged in competitive sourcing from terminating or transferring employees who obtained their jobs through special federal hiring preferences for the disabled. (The prohibition would not apply if the federal jobs in question were being moved to qualified nonprofit organizations that work on behalf of the disabled.) Van Hollen unsuccessfully sponsored similar legislation last year, but he said he remains optimistic it will draw bipartisan support.
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