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Federal Intern Program Blasted as Undermining Open Market Hiring

Washington Post via YellowBrix

May 03, 2010

WASHINGTON, DC – If you think the word “intern” refers just to the legions of eager young folks who descend on Washington each summer, providing cheap labor by day and guzzling beer at night, think again.

When Uncle Sam talks about interns, he might mean the college students who get a few months of valuable on-the-job experience, but he also could be referring to the permanent federal workers who bypassed the regular competitive hiring process and got a full-time job through the Federal Career Intern Program.

Union officials blasted this “intern” program at a Senate hearing Thursday. Although much of the session concerned the training and mentoring of federal employees, the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees took the opportunity to tell the two senators who attended that some government agencies use the program to avoid fair and open competition for federal jobs.

Coincidentally, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report this week about EPA officials who “engaged in a prohibited personnel practice by giving four FCIP job fair participants improper advantages not provided to others attending the job fair.”

The IG noted that “the FCIP has few eligibility and procedural requirements.” Agencies using the program are obligated, however, to follow the government’s Merit System Principles, which call for a hiring process that is open, fair and free of bias.

After the hearing, John Palguta, a vice president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said the EPA violations were attributable to individuals and not to a program many hiring managers find useful.

But NTEU, citing what it called “rampant abuse,” challenged the program’s legality in an ongoing lawsuit filed two years ago. In her testimony to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal work force and the District of Columbia, NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said, “FCIP turns the whole concept of an ‘internship’ on its head.” She was floored when she saw the program listed on an Office of Personnel Management Web site for student jobs.

J. David Cox, AFGE’s secretary-treasurer, told the panel his union “strongly objects to the federal government’s continued use of the FCIP because agencies have embraced it to such a degree that it has nearly superseded the competitive service and because it has become a preferred vehicle for favoritism.”

The unions have urged the Obama administration to eliminate the program, and Cox said that at a minimum there should be a limit on the number of people hired under it each year.

Currently, more than 22,000 workers are hired through it annually, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the subcommittee, said in his opening statement. He added that he is concerned about the broad use of the program, though he did not take a position on whether it should be cut or killed.

He said, “Labeling a hiring authority used for a wide range of positions as an internship program may weaken agencies’ commitment to investing in real internships for focused employee development.”

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, said Congress doesn’t have enough information to determine whether FCIP is ready for the trash can. “In the absence of detailed information on how agencies employ the FCIP, we are left with anecdotal instances of potential agency abuse of this tool. We in Congress need to drill down further on this issue before deciding to modify or terminate this hiring authority.”

Insuring dependents

Although several health insurance companies said they would cover adult children on their parents’ policies by June 1, the Office of Personnel Management says existing federal law prohibits that coverage for those in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program until a new health insurance law takes effect in January.

In a notice to federal agency benefit officers Thursday, OPM said: “We are working diligently with the Congress to address this matter. In the meantime, children turning 22 are automatically covered for an additional 31 days under the parent’s coverage policy. During this time, families can decide to continue FEHB coverage for their adult child for up to 36 months through the Temporary Continuation of Coverage (TCC) program.”

Caution: OPM said “there is no federal contribution toward the premium” of the temporary coverage. That coverage, however, is not subject to exclusions such as those for preexisting condition.

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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