The Coast Guard is reconsidering plans to take on contractors to help process boat permits amid objections from a federal workers' union.
Officials at the Coast Guard's National Vessel Documentation Center, which issues permits for boats, are preparing to collect a new fee from recreational boaters to raise what they say is badly needed revenue.
To collect the fee, they planned to contract with outside workers.
The American Federation of Government Employees says the plan would violate a long-standing ban on outsourcing tasks currently performed by federal workers.
"An annual renewal user fee is just another user fee, not new work," AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. wrote in a letter this month to the Office of Management and Budget.
Officials at the center, based in Falling Waters, W.Va., have since backed away from the idea, at least for now. Tim Shorrock of AFGE said officials have told the union that they haven't written a statement of work or a contract — steps that would be necessary to begin taking on contractors.
Coast Guard spokesman Chad Saylor said officials are "trying to find a position that pleases everybody." He said they are considering all options, including contracting the work, hiring more federal workers or paying current employees overtime to do the work.
At first, center officials had said contractors were their only option. They said they were prevented from hiring more federal employees by the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits government agencies from spending more money than they have.
Union officials objected.
"If you have a limitation on your expenditures, that would apply to [paying] contractors as well as federal employees," said John Threlkeld, a legislative representative for AFGE.
Threlkeld called the center's reasoning a "pretext" to allow it to outsource the work.
Center officials have said nothing about replacing current federal workers with contractors, but union officials see a slippery slope.
"[Contractors] start in the mail room, and the next thing you know, they're creeping out" to take over other positions, said Linda Nasuti, president of AFGE Local 43.
Before the Coast Guard may outsource the work, the union says, it is required under federal law to conduct a formal cost comparison between contracting outside workers and hiring additional federal employees.
Complicating the matter is the moratorium Congress imposed on the comparison process in 2009.
"In some sense I'm sympathetic to the agencies," Threlkeld said, because the government doesn't provide clear guidance on exactly when or how to perform a cost comparison.
Saylor, the Coast Guard spokesman, said officials are planning to do a cost comparison. He said they will use guidelines developed by the Department of Homeland Security to help agencies deterimine the appropriate number of federal employees versus contractors to hire.
"There is no timetable" for when the center will decide a course of action, he said. The process could take months.
Threlkeld said he is hopeful that the center will not hire contractors. He said he has never seen the Homeland Security guidlines used "to justify outsourcing."
Union officials say they faced a similar predicament last fall, when the National Park Service converted maintenance jobs in Philadelphia to contracted work.
Because the park service was hiring contract employees without firing federal ones, the agency thought that no cost comparison was necessary, said Richard Gennetti, a national representative for AFGE.
"We think the real motivation here is to attack the union," Gennetti said. "So you can replace protected, unionized employees with a decent wage with cheap, non-union people who you can dispose of as soon as you want to."