Knowing, understanding and protecting the rights of federal employees

As an attorney focusing my practice on employment law and unemployment compensation, I've experienced a fairly steady stream of federal employees calling with questions about their workplace rights.

Not surprising, since the central Pennsylvania area is surrounded by federal agencies and military installations employing thousands of civilian workers, including the New Cumberland Army Depot, the Navy Depot in Mechanicsburg, the Army War College in Carlisle, a large U.S. Postal Service processing center and the federal building in downtown Harrisburg that houses various agencies and courts.

Over more than 25 years of studying and successfully defending the rights of federal employees, the one thing I've learned is that each case is different and there are no easy, off-the-cuff answers.

That said, it is important that as a federal employee you know your rights and what to do if you feel you're being treated unfairly.

Uncle Sam, the model employer?

Quite simply, federal civilian employees are the best-protected employees in the world in terms of job security and employee rights. This is because the United States government, as your boss, aspires to be a model employer.

One of the elements making a federal career so attractive is your rights as a federal employee. Most of these rights are codified in Title 5 of the United States Code.

There are specific rights, workplace rules and regulatory language concerning whistle-blowing, union membership, discipline, conduct, dispute resolution, discrimination, job classification, merit systems, promotions, performance and pay, just to hit some of the highlights.

Let's look at some of the most common and most important federal employees' guaranteed protections.

Federal employees, meet HR

So just who is protecting you as a federal employee?

The Office of Personnel Management is essentially the federal government's human resources office. Within this office rests the authority to establish and administer rules, regulations and guidelines for just about all human resources functions, including selection and promotion procedures and position classification.

Other agencies or entities ensuring fair play, non-discriminatory hiring and even-handed pay and promotion for federal employees are:

n The federal civil service system, which includes the Merit Systems Protection Board. This is the federal equivalent of state civil service commissions.

n The Office of Special Counsel. This is the legal branch of federal civil service that serves as a kind of watchdog for violations of the federal government's "prohibited personnel practices." Its job, in theory, is to enforce the right of federal employees to be free from these prohibited practices, including intervention in and enforcement of the federal anti-whistle-blowing law.

n The Merit Systems Protection Board, which also investigates alleged whistle-blowing violations. Should a federal employee believe he is being punished for whistle-blowing, in addition to filing a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, he is entitled to complain directly to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Finally, a federal employee has access to the federal court system and judicial review, should a case get that far.

Specifically, an employee is entitled to a judicial review of any action taken against him. Having the federal courts as ultimate authority over a variety of allegedly improper or illegal agency actions is a powerful protection for federal employees.

Of course, before your case winds up in federal court there are administrative forums and avenues for alternative dispute resolution. And if you win your case in an administrative forum, you may recover attorney fees and costs, unless an administrative judge finds that the government's actions were "substantially justified."

All in all, the layers of protection and avenues of appeal for aggrieved federal employees are second to none in the public or private sector.

As a federal employee, you have the rights. It's important to exercise and protect them and seek out a knowledgeable attorney who can help navigate the complexities of your case.

Boss, you can't treat me this way

In the United States Code, two sections enumerate the "better angels" of the federal government's nature when it comes to being your employer.

The first is called the Merit System Principles. There are nine theoretical merit system principles, which add up to the single edict that "the United States government is expected to be a model employer."

The second is the Prohibited Personnel Practices, as mentioned above. These are the 11 practices that are forbidden to the government as an employer. Under this section, federal employees are theoretically protected against all manner of workplace indignities.

For example, federal employees are, theoretically, protected from a supervisor considering any recommendation about an employee's promotion unless the recommendation is in writing, is based on personal knowledge and bears directly on the employee's qualifications or character.

Should a supervisor fail to comp ly with these requirements, the action might constitute a "prohibited personnel practice'' and be subject to review and reversal by the Office of Special Counsel.

This is but one example of the aggressive protections under the federal government's Prohibited Personnel Practices.

Next time, we will look at many of the other Prohibited Personnel Practices protections as we continue to explore, understand and safeguard your rights as a federal employee.


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