As the Pentagon looks to industry to fortify its national security posture against global rivals Russia and China, the largest federal employee union is urging defense leaders not to overlook the federal workforce when standing up existing military depots.

The American Federation of Government Employees sent a letter to Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday pressing him and the Biden administration to fortify the government’s in-house defense resources, which the union says have been weakened by sequestration, furloughs, temporary employment and underinvestment.

“We must invest in and fully deploy existing federal facilities to fully meet the urgent requirements in Ukraine that are straining our global military supply and equipment capability,” Everett Kelley, AFGE’s national president, said in the letter. “Moreover, federal facilities can be mobilized on demand rather than having to coax, incentivize or nationalize the private sector.

As the Defense Department prioritizes expanding munitions production for Ukraine and for domestic stockpiles, and shoring up shipbuilding, AFGE said there are 80,000 civilian employees “ready to meet these national security challenges” through the organic industrial base — the department’s collection of arsenals, shipyards and ammo plants that repair and maintain weapons.

The commercial industrial base builds the systems and equipment, and the department ensures those systems are maintained and operational over the years. Each military department manages its depots, though the under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment is in charge of policymaking and oversight.

This network of at-the-ready storehouses and arsenals has raised concerns in recent years over its declining condition as equipment has surpassed its service life and costs to remedy backlogs of facility projects have grown by several billion dollars since 2017. And annual contract spending went up by nearly $100 billion from 2017 to 2021, reaching $637 billion.

Though lawmakers increased military department’s increasing minimum investment requirement in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, AFGE said the workforce standing up these resources also needs attention.

“Total force management statutes need to be strengthened and complied with to prevent salami slicing, hiring freezes and arbitrary personnel constraints” that harm readiness and stress the force, Kelley said. “To do otherwise simply shifts work from the civilian workforce onto more expensive contractors and overburdens military personnel.”

Pay gaps

AFGE says that wages for workers at certain military depots has lagged, in some cases as much as 25% behind those who were salaried in 2020.

Gaps like that occur when the pay scale system for military depot employees are set at a different locality pay boundary than for salaried employees, who may benefit from a higher-income metropolitan market. Appropriations bills also establish pay caps for increases affecting wage-grade employees.

In 2023, the increase was set to 4.79%.

Unions and the the Federal Prevailing Rate Advisory Committee have recommended eliminating that cap. Doing so would cost roughly $254 million per year, for about 212,000 employees in the Defense Department and other agencies, according to Kelly.

The Defense Department has also been prodded in the past to examine its use of term and temporary employees by the Government Accountability Office.

From 2016 through 2019, DoD increased term personnel by 40% and decreased temporary personnel by 3%, most of whom were employed by the Department of the Army, according to GAO analysis.

Defense agencies may rely on these hiring authorities given by Congress when the scale of combat operations is hard to predict, leading to surges in equipment use and erratic maintenance schedules and sources of funding.

Kelly countered that using temporary employment creates instability, especially as many of these employees are “really performing enduring functions.”

“At present, the [organic industrial base] continues to fully support warfighter requirements, but also faces a number of challenges including the ongoing effects of COVID-19, aging infrastructure and equipment, workforce development and retention, supply chain instability and the need to balance sustainment requirements of new and legacy systems,” said Steven Morani, the acting assistant secretary of defense for sustainment at the time before the House Armed Services Committee in 2021.

He noted that the department’s strategy to rebuild and strengthen the organic industrial base has four main strategic areas of focus: infrastructure, equipment, workforce development developing and continuous assessment and reporting.

Morani also testified that there’s steep competition with the private sector to recruit personnel with skills in software maintenance, as well as traditional mechanical and manual tools. That challenge sometimes forces the department to rely on contracted maintenance, which he said “does not provide the same responsiveness and agility as an organic workforce.”

Statutorily, not more than half of each military department’s annual depot maintenance funding can be used for work done by private-sector contractors.

Bryant Harris contributed reporting.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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