BY TOM YAZDGERDI
AFSA works hard for its members, generalists and specialists alike. But occasionally, we hear that some specialists think AFSA does not look out for their interests or that their concerns take a back seat to those of generalists.
First, let me say that AFSA values each and every member—including all specialists in each of the 22 categories, from diplomatic security agents to office management specialists (OMS) to construction engineers. We will never promote the needs of one group of members over another. Together, we all contribute to the ability of the State Department—and indeed all the foreign affairs agencies—to get the job done.
In the past year (July 2018 to July 2019), relative to their percentage of the workforce, generalists and specialists have sent our Labor-Management team about an equal number of requests for help.
While I have not heard of any specific complaints, numbers may not tell the whole story. If you are a specialist and feel that you are not getting the treatment and service you deserve, please let me know directly.
As I enter my second month on the job, here is a rundown of some of the current issues we are working on. Please feel free to let us know what you think.
Promotion numbers. Congrats to all those who were promoted! Numbers are up over last year generally, which in turn was an improvement on 2017. DS special agent promotions from FS-4 to FS-3 increased by 47 percent this year (139) compared to last year (93), which brings them back up to the levels of 2015.
OMS promotions saw modest increases at all levels, and information management specialist promotions from FS-4 to FS-3 also rose slightly, though we would like to see more.
We will meet with HR to parse the numbers—including the impact on diversity—and keep you posted.
DS and HR delays. We will raise with management the significant delays in the Offices of Personnel Security and Suitability (DS/SI/PSS) and Conduct, Suitability and Discipline (HR/ER/CSD) to process employee cases, e.g., security clearances and potentially adverse administrative actions.
AFSA values each and every member. We will never promote the needs of one group of members over another.
While affected employees await the processing of their cases, their tenure and/ or promotions are withheld. Once bidding season comes around, despite being recommended for promotion, these employees are unable to bid on assignments at the next grade. In security clearance cases, employees are forced to return to Washington on over-complement status until their cases are processed.
We estimate that, on average, an employee is in limbo for approximately two and a half years in security clearance cases. With HR-driven cases, it is not unusual for individuals to go through two promotion cycles and be recommended for promotion each time, only to be told the promotion is held in abeyance pending resolution of their case. Our goal here is to collaborate with DS and HR to find ways to make the process more efficient.
VLAs. AFSA is addressing challenges related to the Visa Lookout Accountability issue, a concern for consular officers and fellows alike.
VLA violations occur when the department determines that officers have not made good-faith efforts to properly resolve all information available before issuing visas (per 9 FAM 307.3-1). In some cases, however, we’ve observed that officers have received VLAs because of conflicting guidance between different entities within the department.
We are looking at these problems and examining the possibility of mitigating the discipline, among other issues. Of course, we are not against disciplinary action, if it is warranted. But we must ensure that the policy is clear on what constitutes a violation and what is a fair basis for taking any such action.
Locality pay for local hires. This was a sore point for me when I joined the Foreign Service as a local hire in October 1991. Back then, local hires—including specialists— could not benefit from lodging and per diem for any time they were in training at the Foreign Service Institute, even though we all had the same expenses.
The department now provides locality pay for all trainees at FSI for more than six months, but not for those whose training is less than six months.
We believe the time has come to ensure that all local hires are treated equally from day one, whatever the length of their training period before deployment overseas. We have officially asked the department to make this change.
Finally, the department has a new extended leave without pay program that will allow employees to take unpaid leave for up to three years at a time. AFSA worked with the department on developing this important work-life balance program in 2016, but it was placed on hold during the subsequent hiring freeze. We are happy it is now back on track, which will help both with retention for the department and flexibility for employees.