Union Warns Against 'Walmartizing' Commissary Employees

A commissary cashier checks groceries at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Commissary cashiers are federal employees on the GS system. (U.S. Air Force/Margo Wright)
A commissary cashier checks groceries at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Commissary cashiers are federal employees on the GS system. (U.S. Air Force/Margo Wright)

A government employee union says moving forward with a suggested plan to shift commissary employees from their current government worker category to non-appropriated funds (NAF) workers "raises profound concerns for civilian employees."

Converting [Defense Commissary Agency] employees to NAF status will cause significant hardship for the agency's workforce," Beth Moten, the legislative and political director for the employee union the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), wrote in a March 18 letter to lawmakers obtained by Military.com. "'Walmartizing' the DeCA workforce in order to generate fake and punitive economies at the expense of American workers is wrong."

Commissary employees are currently paid on the government services (GS) or wage grade (WG) government compensation systems, depending on their job. The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC), a group tasked by Congress with examining military benefits, suggested early this year that commissary employees be moved from those systems to NAF status as a cost savings measure.

Defense budget documents estimate that for 2015 DeCA will spend $792 million on employee costs at 241 stores worldwide. For 2016, DeCA projects that it will staff over 16,000 employees, with about 13,000 of those full-time. About 64 percent of current employees have a military affiliation, with about 28 percent of those being military spouses, according to a MCRMC report. Commissary baggers are not federal employees and work for tips only.

GS and WG employees, such as commissary workers, are paid through taxpayer fueled funding. NAF workers, on the other hand, are paid through funds earned through revenue. For example, Morale, Welfare and Recreation employees are NAF workers paid through the revenue brought in by MWR programs and the exchange systems.

But the source of the funding for employees isn't the only difference between NAF and GS or WG workers. GS and WG workers are paid on different pay tables, sometimes in higher amounts, and qualify for different benefit packages than their NAF counterparts.

It's those differences that Moten wrote will be hurtful to commissary employees. The starting salary for a NAF employee commissary cashier in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, would be 47 percent below that of the current starting salary of a DeCA cashier in the GS system, she wrote. Even the highest paid NAF worker would make 10 percent less, she wrote.

"In other words, NAF-ing the DeCA workforce means a whopping pay cut for many employees doing the same work," Moten wrote.

Benefits would also suffer, she wrote. NAF employees receive different healthcare with fewer options than GS and WG workers, have lower employee retirement contribution and a higher retirement age. They also are not as protected against job loss, she wrote, and are not subject to formal reduction in force procedures. As NAF workers their jobs could also be easily outsourced to contractors, she wrote.

"They are cat-will' employees subject to business-based actions, which means management can change their hours and employment conditions at will," she wrote. "Again, these DeCA employees would be performing the same work, but because they would be NAF-ed, the new personnel system would allow management unfettered discretion to fire them or contract out their jobs."

DeCA officials declined to comment on recommended changes commissary changes. 

The letter was sent to Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-New York), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Service's personnel subcommittee and

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nevada) and Rep. Susan Davis (D-California), chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Service's military personnel subcommittee.

"Senator Graham appreciates the letter and will continue to evaluate the commission's recommendations," said Kevin Bishop, a Graham spokesman.

Officials with Gillibrand, Heck and Davis did not respond for requests for comment.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com

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