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Classification & Qualifications Appeal Decisions

Washington, DC

U.S. Office of Personnel Management
Classification Appeal Decision
Under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code

Ruth A. Powell
Social Work Associate
Inpatient Long Term Psychiatric Unit
Social Work Service
Veterans Affairs Medical Center
Veterans Health Administration
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Bedford, Massachusetts

Social Work Associate

Robert D. Hendler
Classification and Pay Claims
Program Manager
Merit System Audit and Compliance



As provided in section 511.612 of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), this decision constitutes a classification certificate which is mandatory and binding on all administrative, certifying, payroll, disbursing, and accounting officials of the Government.  The agency is responsible for reviewing its classification decisions for identical, similar, or related positions to ensure consistency with this decision.  There is no right of further appeal.  This decision is subject to discretionary review only under conditions and time limits specified in 5 CFR 511.605, 511.613, and 511.614, as cited in the Introduction to the Position Classification Standards (Introduction), appendix 4, section G (address provided in appendix 4, section H).


On January 4, 2012, Philadelphia Oversight office of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) accepted a classification appeal from Ms. Ruth A. Powell.  The appellant’s position is currently classified as a Social Work Associate, GS-187-8, and is located in the Inpatient Long Term Psychiatric Unit , Social Work Service, Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC), Veterans Health Administration (VHA), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in Bedford, Massachusetts.  The appellant believes her position should be upgraded to the GS-9 grade level.  We received the complete agency administrative report on February 13, 2012, and have accepted and decided this appeal under section 5112(b) of title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.).

To help us decide the appeal, we conducted telephone interviews with the appellant on April 20, 2012, and her immediate supervisor on April 30, 2012.  In reaching our classification decision, we have carefully considered all of the information obtained from the interviews, as well as all other information of record provided by the appellant and her agency.

General issues

The appellant does not agree that her official position description (PD) # 06415A accurately reflects her assigned duties and responsibilities.  The appellant states she performs the duties listed in the Social Work Associate, GS-187-9 PD, a copy of which she did not provide, and works with patients diagnosed with complex disorders such as Schizophrenia, Psychosis, Bipolar Disorder , Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Dementia.  Her supervisor has certified to the accuracy of the appellant’s PD.

A PD is the official record of the major duties and responsibilities assigned to a position by an official with the authority to assign work.  A position is the duties and responsibilities which make up the work performed by the employee.  Classification appeal regulations permit OPM to investigate or audit a position and decide an appeal based on the actual duties and responsibilities currently assigned by management and performed by the employee.  An OPM appeal decision classifies a real operating position and not simply the PD.  This decision is based on the work currently assigned to and performed by the appellant.  After careful review, we find the appellant’s PD of record meets the standards of PD accuracy for classification purposes as discussed in section III.E of the Introduction, describes the work she performs, and we incorporate it by reference into our decision.

In her appeal request to OPM, the appellant alludes to impact of the person on the job by stating she possesses a Masters Degree in Social Work which entitles her to the GS-9 grade level.  The concept of impact of the person on the job is addressed in both the Introduction and The Classifier’s Handbook.  This concept holds that, by virtue of exceptional competence, an employee may have such as impact on the duties, responsibilities, and qualification requirements of a position that it is changed to the point where its classification must also be changed.  On the other hand, the mere fact an individual in a position possesses higher qualifications or stands out from other individuals in comparable positions is not sufficient reason by itself to classify the position to a higher grade.  When determining grade level based on this concept, it is essential management recognizes and endorses the duties and the work environment allows continuing performance at a different level.  Neither the appellant nor officials of her agency provided evidence impact of the person on the job should be a factor in evaluation of the appellant’s position.  That is, her performance actually makes the duties of the appealed position materially different from what they otherwise would be.

Position information

The Bedford VAMC is a long-term care facility specializing in geriatric and psychiatric care.  The comprehensive health services provided include Mental Health, Medicine, Psychiatry, Physical Medicine, Dentistry, Geriatrics, and Ambulatory Care.

The Inpatient Long Term Psychiatric Unit (Unit 6B) is part of the Psychiatry Service which falls under the Mental Health Service Line.  There are approximately 35 patients assigned to this locked unit.

The veterans admitted to Unit 6B are diagnosed with one or more disorders such as Schizophrenia, Psychosis, Bipolar disorder, PTSD, and Dementia.  These cases are made more complicated when the veteran is also diagnosed with substance abuse or dependence, and/or personality disorders.  Once the responsible Psychiatrist determines the veteran is appropriate for admission,, he or she receives a physical examination by a Nurse Practitioner and is evaluated by the interdisciplinary care team (care team) which consists of a Psychiatrist, Nurse Manager, Pharmacist, Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, a Case Manager who is a Nurse, and the appellant..  The care team also speaks to the patient’s guardian about the patient’s and family’s needs.  Once this is completed, the appellant conducts a psycho-social assessment of the patient which consists of a series of questions the patient responds to concerning such topics as his or her next of kin, financial status, personal history, etc.  Together the care team determines the VHA and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) resources and services for which the patient is eligible.  In collaboration with the patient, guardian, and the other care team members, the appellant develops and documents the individual assistance needs of the patient.  The purpose is to identify the patient’s strengths, irritations (what upsets the veteran), and support structure as well as the VAMC care services needed to keep the patient functioning as independently and in as healthy a manner as possible.

The appellant then educates and works with the patient and guardian to access the appropriate resources and entitlements.  She uses her resource file of VA and community resources and services to ensure appropriate and effective referrals.  The appellant provides assistance to approximately half the 35 patients and their guardians once decisions are made about the patient’s treatment plan by the care team.  She works closely with the Psychiatrist on issues regarding treatment care for the patients and does not have regular interaction with patients who do not require social work assistance.  Those patients interact with nursing and psychiatric staff members.

If the care team determines a patient can be discharged, the appellant ensures the approved discharge plan is executed in a timely and appropriate manner.  She also assists the patient’s guardian as needed in arranging for required services. 

The appellant documents all interventions and activities concerning the patient’s progress in his or her electronic medical record using the Computerized Patient Record System (CPRS) system and ensures appropriate hand off when transferring patient care.

Series, title and standard determination

The appellant does not question the series or title of her position or the use of the Position Classification Standard (PCS) for the Social Services Series, GS-187 to evaluate her position and, based on a review of the record, we concur.  Based on the mandatory titling requirements of the 187 PCS, the appellant’s position is allocated as Social Work Associate, GS-187, since the appellant provides assistance and services to patients and their guardians as prescribed for individual cases by a professional caseworker such as a Psychiatrist in conjunction with professional treatment.

Grade determination

The GS-187 PCS uses two factors to evaluate the difficulty, responsibility, and qualification requirements of the position.  The two factors that affect the grade levels of positions are (1) Nature and Range of Assigned Cases and (2) Level of Responsibility.  The first recognizes differences that are related to the range of cases assigned, the skills and knowledges required to perform the work, the difficulty of personal contacts involved, and the guidelines available in policies and regulations.  The second takes into account the kind of supervision and guidance received and the degree of authority to make decisions that affect individuals and families using assistance.  The PCS does not isolate these two factors in the portion of the standard dealing with grade-level criteria.  It does not deal with them separately because within each grade, supervision must be related to the difficulty of the service required in different types of cases. 

While the series includes positions in a variety of programs in different agencies, this PCS relates specifically to positions of social service representatives in the public assistance program of the Department of Public Welfare of the District of Columbia.  However, the information on grade levels characteristic of such assignments provides a basis for evaluating work of equivalent difficulty in other kinds of positions in the GS-187 series,  including Social Work Associates.

At the GS-8 grade level, social service representatives work with considerable independence in providing assistance and service in a wide range of cases.  Employees at this level have responsibility for (a) identifying needs and providing individualized assistance and serve appropriate to a variety of specific problems in a wide range of cases without prior approval of the supervisor, and (b) developing recommendations for planned use of agency resources and auxiliary services that are appropriate in difficult and complicated cases, but fall short of being unusually complex in nature.  When dealing with a wide range of cases involving a variety of individualized problems of a less serious nature, the employee takes the initiative in developing and implementing an appropriate plan of assistance and service, and keeps the supervisor informed of any unusual problems that arise.  Supervision is usually limited to discussing progress of more serious cases and a sampling review of case records and reports.  Where more serious problems are encountered, the employee recommends plans to the supervisor for suitable programs of supplementary assistance and service and reports back periodically on progress.

At the GS-9 grade level, the highest level described in the PCS, assignments of social service representatives are based on recognition of demonstrated superior skill and proven sound judgment in working with serious and complicated assistance problems that do not require professional casework.  Assignments at this level include a preponderance of cases that have been selected for special service because of the client’s very serious problems and circumstances, and thus requires unusual skill and judgment on the part of the employee.  In addition, the employee has authority to make decisions as to the appropriate assistance and service in these very difficult cases on a continuing basis and takes the initiative in providing assistance and service without prior approval of the supervisor.  Supervision is received mainly through the review of reports and by periodic discussions of the progress of assigned cases.

The appellant’s position meets the GS-8 grade level.  Similar to this level, she serves as an active participant of the care team providing assistance to patients diagnosed with one or more disorders such as Schizophrenia, Psychosis, Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, and Dementia by the Unit 6B Psychiatrist.  She also conducts a psycho-social assessment, as described above, on each patient.  In collaboration with the other care team members, patient, and guardian, the appellant develops, documents, and prioritizes the individual assistance needs of the patient.  The care team also determines the VHA, VBA, and auxiliary resources and services for which the patient is eligible.  As at the GS-8 level, the appellant takes the results of these discussions and independently develops the family contacts and discharge plan aspects of the patient’s assistance and service plan.  She works with the patient and his or her guardian to ensure the patient accesses the appropriate resources and entitlements.  If the care team decides the patient should be released to an assisted living, nursing home, or other care facility, the appellant will contact and explain the decision to the guardian and set up appointments with facility representatives to interview the patient at the VAMC to see if the patient can be accommodated or assist the guardian with making appointments to tour the facility prior to approving the patient’s release, as needed.  If the guardian has concerns about the patient being released, the appellant discusses the situation with her supervisor regarding how to proceed, which rarely occurs.

Like the GS-8 grade level, the appellant makes recommendations on the assistance portions of a patient’s treatment plan to the Unit 6B Psychiatrist.  For example, a patient may decide to discuss a problem with the appellant such as a money, marital, or family issue.  If she notices a change in the patient’s mood such as anger or sadness when discussing the issue or a family member, the appellant informs the Psychiatrist, describing what was said, how the patient reacted, and what may have contributed to the change so the Psychiatrist can take action as needed.  The appellant assists the patients on Unit 6B with meeting their needs, if possible.  For example, for patients who have access to money, she writes out a money slip each day so that the patient can make purchases at the VAMC Canteen for food items or the small store for snack or personal items such as tooth paste, soap, or lotion.   A Friday slip covers the whole weekend.  If a patient is unable to leave the VAMC but wants to purchase new clothing, the appellant will request catalogs the patient wants to see.  Once the patient makes his or her selections to include the color and size, she places the order.  If items need to be returned, the appellant takes care of it for the patient.  Also like the GS-8 grade level, the appellant’s supervisor reviews a sampling of her case records using the CPRS system.  All of the amendments or updates the appellant makes are part of the patient’s medical record.  The supervisor reviews the information and makes recommendations if needed.  The appellant discusses the progress of cases with the Psychiatrist, with whom she has daily contact.

The appellant’s position does not fully meet the GS-9 grade level at which a position needs to be assigned both serious and complicated cases and possess decision making authority over the appropriate assistance to provide without prior supervisory approval.  The appellant works in Unit 6B which handles patients with complicated cases typical of the GS-9 level who are diagnosed with one or more complicated disorders.  However, her position is not vested with decision making authority over what appropriate assistance and services to provide the patient.  Those decisions are made by the care team, of which the appellant is an active member.  Like the GS-8 level, the appellant then independently ensures the patient accesses the appropriate resources and entitlements and develops and carries out the family contacts and discharge plan aspects of the patient’s assistance and service plan.


The appellant’s position is properly classified as a Social Worker Associate, GS-187-8.





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