Stopping danger in the mailWASHINGTON -- The...


Stopping danger in the mail

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Postal Service has finalized a rule allowing it to open or inspect mail deemed to be a "credible threat" to the safety of postal employees or transportation workers.

In a major change to the rule it originally proposed earlier this year, the postal service included a provision mandating the checking of dangerous mail transported on the ground as well as air.

Postal officials had been waiting for Congress to approve legislation setting up such a security procedure, but when lawmakers adjourned after having approved only a study of mail and cargo security procedures, the service went ahead with its own rule.

Several people who commented on the rule criticized the vagueness of the term "credible threat" and asked that a situation that would trigger the screening or opening of mail be more specifically defined. The postal service balked at that, claiming it was impossible to define in advance precisely what a security threat might be.

In fact, being more precise might give aid to sophisticated terrorists who could evade the countermeasures, postal officials said.

The postal service rejected the idea of constant screening of all mail, which it said would cause delays and cost too much. The service quoted the Airport Operators Council International on the need for full-time screening: "While steps should most certainly be in place to make reasonable efforts toward identifying . . . [a package containing a bomb], we are not convinced that sufficient credible threat has been demonstrated to justify a system broader than a case-by-case scheme triggered by specific information."

The new rule would apply to domestic mail only. Threats posed by mail from overseas would remain the responsibility of the Defense Department.

Hiring students for more:

The Office of Personnel Management has proposed that federal agencies be able to hire student assistants at the GS-9 level, rather than the current GS-7.

Under the 41-year-old program, students can work up to 1,040 hours annually in positions filled outside the regular government civil service procedures. The personnel office pointed out that examinations are not cost-effective and may not produce part-time help.

OPM expects few candidates to qualify for the top GS-9 grade level positions because substantial graduate education, a master's degree or specialized professional experience are required. But the personnel office expects that the more attractive pay will be a valuable recruiting tool where the government is getting increasing competition from the private sector for college-educated candidates.

The office is taking comments on the proposal until Feb. 5 before it moves to implement the higher pay for young recruits.

Clay is new chairman:

Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., who has been one of the strongest advocates for organized labor in Congress, has become the new chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee.

He succeeds Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., who retired.

Clay was next in line in seniority after Ford and won the chairmanship by one of the largest margins -- 242-11 -- in the House Democratic Caucus when votes for committee chairmen in the 102nd Congress were cast last week.

At the top of his agenda, Clay has said, is reforming the health insurance program for federal employees. He also wants to resume the fight to loosen restrictions on government workers' political activities under the Hatch Act.

A longtime civil rights activist, Clay is also expected to be aggressive in investigating the accuracy of the Commerce Department's 1990 census, especially in urban areas.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-8th, is the only Marylander on the panel.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently affirmed a Federal Labor Relations Authority decision that held the Department of Health and Human Services could perform its mission without imposing a smoking ban in the workplace.

HHS had refused to negotiate smoking on the job, in concert with the no-smoking policy tailored to its health mission. But the appellate court said the agency had no "compelling need" for the regulation. The ruling came in a suit filed by the National Treasury Employees Union.

HHS had also argued that its employees' health constituted a compelling need for a smoking ban. The court, however, commented that "it is hard to see how it can be argued . . . that HTC HHS's concern for its employees can be qualitatively different from that of other government agencies."

The HHS smoking prohibition is what drove management at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn and in Baltimore to insist on a ban that is now included in a three-year labor contract governing those agencies. SSA is a part of HHS.

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