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WASHINGTON — Defense officials on Thursday finalized new pay regulations for civilian employees designed to emphasize performance over seniority, but union officials have vowed to fight the plan in court.

The changes, which create a new national security personnel system, replace the traditional grade-based system currently used to pay civilian employees with multi-tiered pay banding based on job responsibilities rather than years of service.

The new system permits more pay raises and bonuses for high-performing workers, but also lets supervisors withhold or even decrease salary for poor performance. Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England said the goal is to shift away from the automatic promotion mentality in place and reward workers who excel at their jobs.

England said the final regulations are the result of 18 months of collaboration with union heads and federal workers, and he expects the plans to be well-received.

But J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, said unions were barely involved in the draft stages of the process. A coalition of unions is already planning to file a lawsuit against the department, asserting the new system would violate basic collective bargaining laws.

Among Morrow’s complaints: The new system would allow top defense officials to override certain provisions of union contracts for reasons other than national emergencies, the guidelines for evaluating performance are vague and ripe for abuse and the money for the new pay system simply isn’t available.

“They say they want a new market-based pay system, but it will be revenue neutral,” he said. “Public employees are already making less than their private counterparts.”

Keith Hill, a 34-year civilian defense employee and president of the AFGE local 1647, said he worries that supervisors could withhold even cost-of-living increases from employees simply for personal reasons, not work performance.

“This leaves it all up to their opinion,” he said. “Personal feelings come into everyone’s opinion. But now, my pay is going to be based off my boss’s personal feelings for me.”

Defense officials said intensive training for supervisors and employees will prevent that abuse, and written performance standards will actually bolster an employee’s position by setting clear goals.

The new labor-relations aspects of the system will go into effect in December unless Congress opts to block the plan. The pay and human resources provisions will be implemented in phases, with the first group of 65,000 employees entering the system in February.

But officials said those general schedule employees won’t see any pay changes until January 2007, after supervisors have had time to establish a performance baseline from which to evaluate them.

Officials expect about 650,000 of the Defense Department’s 750,000 civilian employees to enter the system over the next few years.

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