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Navy Report Says Workers Mistreated

Point Mugu: An inspector concludes that many older employees were discriminated against. Base officials launch investigation.

September 04, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Managers at Point Mugu have engaged in a pattern of discrimination against older workers, and may have improperly laid off as many as 300 civilian employees, according to an internal Navy report that questions the base's policy for evaluating some employees.

Rear Adm. Bert Johnston, who heads the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, said the base will name an independent investigator this week to look into the charges in the report, which was written in April after more than a year of study.

"The bottom line is that there were some concerns identified, and we're taking the appropriate action on them," he said. "We're going to look over our shoulder."

The often scathing report by the Naval Air System Command's inspector general's office in Washington argues that a 20-year system of awarding bonuses and raises, called the Demo Project, puts older workers at a disadvantage when the Navy dismisses employees.

The report's author, Harry Carter, an investigator in the inspector general's office, further concluded that high-ranking officers at the Naval Air Systems Command attempted to quash the report, questioned his authority to handle the investigation and accused him of asking biased questions when he conducted interviews with managers and workers at Point Mugu and China Lake naval bases.

Carter wrote that before the Navy began its 1999 civilian staff cuts, he warned civilian managers at Naval Air Systems Command that they should wait until the issue had been studied further.

But his warning was ignored.

According to an internal memo from the Naval Air System Command's legal office, lawyers suggested that worker complaints could be ignored, reasoning that the prospect of the workers filing a class-action lawsuit was unlikely because the process would be "onerous, expensive, and time-consuming for the parties."

Navy brass say they believe the process is fair and respected among most workers and managers, but Carter's report contends that there is a flaw in the system that leads managers to feel they must under-rate some workers in their evaluations.

He questioned the Weapons Division's commitment to seeking out the details in his findings.

"I can support everything in my report. There's no question about that," Carter said from his office in suburban Maryland. "My position is I want to see how this new investigation is going to be conducted."

The Demo Project, approved by Congress in 1979 and practiced at only a handful of bases and in another version at the FBI and CIA, was created to give managers more flexibility and to reward employees who do outstanding work, said Ed Rockdale, the acting personnel officer for the Weapons Division.

But managers and workers interviewed by the inspector general's office say that because money is limited, many managers choose to give lower ratings to older workers because they have typically reached a pay ceiling, and could not receive the money.

Some employees believe managers acted to purposely push older workers out.

"They've been giving only average performance ratings to older workers," said John Jay, 56, an engineer who was laid off in November. "They did it deliberately. They knew what they were doing. . . . All of the older employees were up against these ceilings, and very few are given outstanding ratings, and couldn't jump over the barriers."

When the Navy began a series of cuts last year as part of the Pentagon's ongoing belt-tightening, those who received lower ratings were the first to go--a process that, because of the Demo Project, critics contend adversely affected older workers, minorities and women.

"There's a design flaw in the system," said Jack Futoran, a lawyer who has filed a lawsuit on Jay's behalf. "Older employees are topped out. You can't reward them."

Navy officials argue that there are opportunities for employees to contest their evaluations, and that managers can ask for additional funding if "there is good cause to exceed it." They also say that workers who receive more money--typically the most experienced ones--deserve tougher evaluations.

"The standard for someone who's highly paid will naturally be higher than for someone who is paid less," Rockdale said.

The budget for salaries hasn't changed, Rockdale said, and was based on a previous amount used before the Demo Project's creation. The program has been overseen by the Navy's Office of Personnel Management for years, and that office never chose to end the project, even after a series of critical employee surveys and analyses.

Carter's report, culled from a series of focus-group interviews at Point Mugu and China Lake, states that many managers feel their hands are tied because of the limited funding and it scolds top brass for taking the position "that everything is fine because we have instruction that properly describes how supervisors are supposed to rate their employees."

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