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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

Teofilo Maldonado
Ramon E. Velez
Histopathology Technician
GS-646-7
Histology and Cytology Section
Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service
Veterans Affairs Caribbean
Healthcare System (VACHS)
Veterans Health Administration
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Histopathology Technician
GS-646-6
C-0646-06-01

Jeffrey E. Sumberg
Deputy Associate Director,
Center for Merit System Accountability

04/10/2009


Date

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 the Introduction to the Position Classification Standards (Introduction), appendix 4, section G (address provided in appendix 4, section H).

Since this decision lowers the grade of the appealed position, it is to be effective no later than the beginning of the sixth pay period after the date of this decision, as permitted by 5 CFR 511.702.  The applicable provisions of parts 351, 432, 536, and 752 of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations, must be followed in implementing the decision.  If the appellants are entitled to grade retention, the two-year retention period begins on the date this decision is implemented.  The servicing human resources office must submit a compliance report containing the corrected position description reflecting the actual work performed by the appellants as described in this certificate and Standard Forms 50 for the appellants showing the personnel action taken.  The report must be submitted within 30 days from the effective date of the personnel action to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) office that accepted the appeal.

Introduction

On July 14, 2008, the Philadelphia Oversight and Accountability Group of the OPM accepted a classification appeal from Mr. Jose A. Matos, Mr. Teofilo Maldonado, and Mr. Ramon E. Velez; all assigned to identical additional positions, herinafter referred to as position.  The position is currently classified as Histopathology Technician, GS-646-7.  The appellants believe the position should be classified as either Histopathology Technician, GS-646-8, or Histotechnologist, GS‑601-8 with potential for a higher grade.  The appellants’ position is located in the Histology and Cytology Section, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service, VACHS, Veterans Health Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  We subsequently removed Mr. Matos from this appeal due to his promotion to another position because, under pertinent regulations, an employee can only appeal the classification of his or her current official position of record.  We received the complete agency administrative report on August 5, 2008, and have accepted and decided this appeal under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.).

To help us decide the appeal, we conducted telephone interviews with both appellants on January 14, 2009, and telephone interviews with their first-line supervisor and the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Chief on January 12 and 13, 2009.  In reaching our classification decision, we have carefully considered all of the information obtained from the interviews, as well as the written information furnished by the appellants and their agency including the position description (PD) of record.

Background

The VACHS originally classified the appellants’ position as Histopathology Technician, GS‑646-8, in November 1993.  In June 2007, the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Services Chief reviewed the appellants’ PD and recommended VACHS reclassify the position as Histotechnologists under the 601 series at a higher grade, citing the College of American Pathologists’ (CAP) new training and licensing requirements for Histotechnologists as the reason for the reclassification request.  However, VAHCS classified the position as Histopathology Technician, GS-646-7, in October 2007.  In December 2007, the appellants filed a group classification appeal with the VA Central Office (VACO) requesting their position be reclassified at a higher grade under the 601 series as Histotechnologists or reclassified as GS‑646-8, Histotechnicians, citing the CAP training and licensing requirements for Histotechnologists as the reason for their appeal.  VACO determined the position was properly classified in the 646 series since the primary purpose of the position involves preparing specimens for examination and diagnosis by pathologists, and was properly graded at the GS-7 grade level because:      

As described at GS-7, the work of the position involves a variety of extremely difficult, delicate, and complex tests performed without supervision.  The work involves specimens of all sizes and conditions from any part of the body and involves complex and delicate chemical reactions and the ability to accept or reject slides based on the proper staining reaction.  As described at the GS-7, the appellants are expected to interpret, modify, and adapt instructions and procedures to meet situational needs.

The appellants then filed this appeal with OPM. 

The appellants agree PD #7823-O to which they are assigned accurately describes the duties and responsibilities of the position, and their immediate supervisor has certified the PD as accurate.

General Issues

In their appeal to OPM, the appellants raise several issues they believe should be considered in determining the classification of their position:  an outdated classification standard which does not take into account recent licensure requirements, the impact of the person on the job, and classification consistency.  The Introduction and The Classifier’s Handbook (Handbook) contain information which specifically relates to the appellants’ issues.  The Introduction and the Handbook provide background information, general concepts, and technical guidance regarding the selection, interpretation, and application of OPM position classification standards (PCS) for General Schedule work.

Outdated Classification Standard

The appellants state the position is misclassified because the duties have changed since the issuance of the Pathology Technician, GS-646 PCS in 1968.  They claim this PCS is out of date and does not take into account recent changes requiring Histotechnician and Histotechnologist licensure by the Puerto Rico Department of Health. 

The adequacy of grade-level criteria in OPM standards is not appealable (section 511.607 of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations).  All OPM GS PCSs are consistent with the grade-level definitions of work established by law.  These definitions are based on the difficulty and responsibility of the work at each level and the qualifications required to do that work.

All occupations change over time, some more rapidly and profoundly than others, but the fundamental duty and responsibility patterns and qualifications required in an occupation normally remain stable.  Therefore, careful application of the appropriate PCS to the work an appellant performs should yield the correct grade for their position.  Any of the duties not specifically referenced in the PCS can be evaluated properly by comparison with similar or related duties the PCS does describe, as well as with the entire pattern of grade-level characteristics.  The GS-646 PCS states future technological and automation developments may alter the level of difficulty or responsibility for the technician performing the work.  As new tests are added and established ones are discontinued, the character of the difficulty and complexity of the work rather than any specific test continue to determine the grade level.  Thus, the grade-level criteria in the standard are still valid. 

Furthermore, although the licensure requirements make the appellants responsible for the proper preparation of tissue for examination by chemical processes, it is presumed in all PCSs the work will be performed properly in accordance with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.  The existence of a requirement for a license and sanctions for improperly performed work do not add to the difficulty and responsibility of the job and, therefore, has no direct impact on grade level.  In addition, by law, we must classify positions solely by comparing their current duties and responsibilities to OPM position classification standards and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Since comparison to the standards is the exclusive method for classifying positions, we may consider the appellants’ qualifications only insofar as they are required to perform the current work.

Impact of the Person on the Job

The appellants state they are registered Histotechnologists with the highest level of professionalism and more than 30 years of loyal service to the VA.  The concept of impact of the person on the job is addressed in both the Introduction and the Handbook.  This concept holds that, by virtue of exceptional competence, an employee may have such an 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 appellants nor officials of their agency provided evidence impact of the person on the job should be a factor in evaluation of the appellants’ position.  That is, their performance actually makes the duties of the appealed position materially different from what they otherwise would be.

Classification Consistency

The appellants provided vacancy announcements for positions classified as Histotechnologist, GS-601-9, and Histopathology Technician, GS-646-8/10, at other VA medical centers or Federal agencies.  By law, we must classify positions solely by comparing their current duties and responsibilities to OPM position classification standards and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Since comparison to the standards is the exclusive method for classifying positions, we cannot compare the appellants’ current duties to other positions, which may or may not be classified properly as a basis for deciding their appeal. 

One of the vacancy announcements is for a position at the National Institutes of Health, a research agency whose mission is materially different from that of a VA medical center.  One VA position is supervisory and, as such, is likely graded by application of the General Schedule Supervisory Guide and not the GS-646 PCS.  The other two announcements have limited information on the actual duties and responsibilities of the positions.  Like OPM, the appellant’s agency must classify positions based on comparison to OPM standards and guidelines.  However, the agency also has primary responsibility for ensuring its positions are classified consistently with OPM appeal decisions.  If the appellants consider their position so similar to others that they all warrant the same classification, they may pursue the matter by writing to their agency headquarters human resources office.  In doing so, they should specify the precise organizational location, classification, duties, and responsibilities of the positions in question.  If the positions are found to be basically the same as the appellants’, the agency must correct their classification to be consistent with this appeal decision.  Otherwise, the agency should explain to the appellants the differences between their position and the others.

Position Information

The VACHS is a tertiary care facility and a teaching hospital.  It provides a full range of patient care services with state-of-the-art technology, as well as education and research.  Comprehensive health care is provided through primary care, tertiary care, and long-term care in the areas of medicine, surgery, physical medicine and rehabilitation, neurology, spinal cord injury, mental health, oncology, dentistry, geriatrics, and extended care.  VACHS programs include open heart surgery, rehabilitation, spinal cord injury, nursing home, hospital-based care, day treatment center, alcohol- and drug-dependence treatment, post traumatic stress disorder program, pulmonary function, and an immunology evaluation clinic for HIV positive patients, among others.  The VACHS consists of the main medical center located in San Juan, Puerto Rico with satellite clinics located in Ponce and Mayagüez.  The medical center includes multi-disciplinary ambulatory facilities, 331 authorized hospital beds, and 149 nursing home beds including blind rehabilitation beds.  There are also community-based outpatient clinics in St. Thomas and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Arecibo and Guayama in Puerto Rico.  The VACHS services a population of approximately 146,000 veterans in Puerto Rico and 5,152 in the U.S. Virgin Islands according to 2000 U.S. Census figures.  The VACHS with all its clinics in Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands is part of the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, Veterans Integrated Service Network.

The work of the appellants’ position involves preparing and processing surgically removed tissues, autopsy tissue, and bodily fluids to produce stained slides for diagnosis by pathologists.  Duties include:  assisting physicians while they cut gross surgical tissue or instructing patients in the collection of specimens; preparing slide smears from percutaneous needle aspirates; preparing cytology specimens for fixation; performing fixation of protein on tissue and bodily fluids; processing tissue through dehydration and embedding in a liquid paraffin-like substance; decalcifying ossified tissue and bone marrow biopsies; performing a wide variety of histochemical staining; preparing chemical stains and solutions; cutting serial sections of complicated anatomical structures using a microtome; maintaining equipment; collecting xylol, alcohol, and formalin for disposal; mounting, labeling, and documenting slides; preparing tissue for disposal; maintaining the CAP workload reporting system; instructing physicians and nursing personnel in the proper technique of collection and preparation of samples; preparing and mailing surgical and autopsy material; and preparing special slides for other hospitals, pathologists, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP).  The work requires knowledge and skill to prepare stains and specimen slides for diagnosis by Pathologists.  It requires a knowledge of chemistry, laboratory equipment and instrumentation, and anatomy and medical terminology.

The appellants emphasize the complexity and large number of stains they perform.  Their PD states they perform more than 50 different kinds of immunologic stains and a wide variety of histochemical stains.  In addition, they cut and stain frozen sections for rapid diagnosis on a daily basis.  The appellants and their supervisor describe this process as their most difficult, because it requires them to collect a tissue sample from the patient’s back using a large needle, prepare the sample immediately, and ship it to AFIP for diagnosis since their hospital does not have an electron microscope for them to diagnose the sample locally.  The appellants state they work with any kind of tissue or fluid samples from any part of the body, including foreign parts, such as pacemakers.  In addition, they prepare cytology specimens as needed, usually when the cytology technicians are out on vacation.  Their typical sample preparation usually includes the following steps:

  • Assist physicians in the collection of specimens or instruct patients in the collection of specimens
  • Prepare the specimen for examination
  • Stain the specimen according to the physician’s request or laboratory guidelines
  • Label the specimen with an accession number
  • Record the accession number in the logbook and the computer log
  • Check the specimen for proper staining reactions
  • Provide the specimen to the supervisor for inspection (the supervisors checks specimens to ensure they have proper stains and cuts and annotates these checks in the logbook per CAP regulations)
  • Provide the specimen to the pathologist for diagnosis
  • Perform any additional stains on the specimen as requested by the pathologist
  • Store the specimen for two weeks
  • Prepare the specimen for disposal

The appellants state if they observe something abnormal while reviewing a specimen, they will inform the pathologists.  However, both the supervisor and the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Chief state they do not check for abnormality.  All parties agree only the pathologists make diagnoses from the specimens and the appellants write no reports as to the content of the slides. 

The appellants apply established, specific, and directly applicable policies, practices, manuals, guidelines, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to complete a wide range of special and nonstandard stains.  Many of the stains are performed automatically by Ventana Medical Systems machines.  However, when the machines break or are not designed to perform specific stains, the appellants perform the stains manually.  The manuals, guidelines, and SOPs cover all possible stains and procedures.  However, the appellants often perform many of the manual stains from memory based on their experience.  If the appellants discover gaps in the guidelines or have questions about procedures not covered by the SOPs, they either call the company about the Ventana machines or contact the pathologists for guidance.  They occasionally make suggestions for modification of methods and procedures; however, none are implemented until they are approved by the Chief of Service.

Series, Title, and Standard Determination

The 601, General Health Science series covers two-grade interval professional or scientific work which is specifically health-oriented in character, when the work is of such generalized or miscellaneous specialized nature the positions are not more appropriately classifiable in any of the existing series in this or any other Group.  The appellant’s appear to rely on the educational and licensing requirements of external organizations to justify placement of their position in this professional series.  However, the determination as to whether an occupation is professional for purposes of the GS system rests with OPM.

The GS-646, Pathology Technician series covers one-grade interval technical work subordinate to the work of pathologists or other physicians (or other professional personnel) that make the final diagnostic specimens of human tissues and/or cell preparations.  Technician work in histopathology involves preparing thin sections of tissue specimens including fixing, clearing, infiltrating, embedding, sectioning, staining, and mounting.  Technician work in cytology involves preparing, staining, and examining microscopically specimens of body fluids, secretions, and exudations from any part of the body to determine whether cellular structure is normal, atypical, or abnormal.  The work requires a practical knowledge of the techniques of anatomical laboratory practice in histopathology and/or cytology and of the chemistry, biology, and anatomy involved.

The appellants’ assigned duties and responsibilities, as described above, are not generalized or of a miscellaneous specialized nature.  Rather, they are directly and completely covered by the GS‑646 series description of histopathology work.  Therefore, the position is properly classified in the GS-646 series.  Since the primary purpose of the position involves preparing specimens for diagnosis by pathologists, the position is properly titled Histopathology Technician.  OPM’s Operating Manual:  Qualification Standards for General Schedule Positions specifically provides for appointment to GS-646 positions at the GS-5 grade level based on successful completion of a full 4-year course of study leading to a bachelor's degree with major study or at least 24 semester hours in subjects appropriate to the position to be filled; or (b) successful completion of 2 academic years of study that included at least 24 semester hours in chemistry and/or in appropriate fields of biological science and successful completion of a 12-month program of education, training, and supervised experience in cytotechnology or histopathology which has been approved by a nationally recognized accrediting agency.  Thus, the appellant’s education and credentialing are fully considered in their placement in the GS-646 series.

Grade Determination

The GS-646 PCS provides grade-level guides for nonsupervisory anatomical pathology technicians from GS-1 through GS-7.  This range portrays nonsupervisory performance levels typical of the occupation as a whole.  Those positions which clearly and significantly exceed the criteria for the grade GS-7 level as depicted in the PCS may be classified by extension of this material.  Two factors differentiate among grade levels of pathology laboratory aid and technician positions:  Nature of the Assignment and Control over the Work

Qualifications Required and Personal Work Contacts are taken into account and reflected in the other factors.  For example, some histopathology technician positions involve contacts to collect specimens.  Such contacts are inherent in the nature of the work and are so related to the techniques involved in collecting the specimens and performing the tests and examination on the specimens that it is not feasible to separate them from the complexity and responsibility of the assignment.  Therefore, Qualifications Required and Personal Work Contacts are not treated under separately identified factors.

Nature of Assignment

This factor measures the difficulty and complexity of the tests and examinations performed.  It also covers the skills, knowledges, and judgment required to perform them.  The nature of the assignment includes such elements as the technical complexity of the procedures, the level of the skills and knowledges required, and significance and influence of the results. 

GS-6 histopathology technicians typically perform procedures in preparing histologic sections requiring advanced and nonstandard techniques and procedures.  They prepare frozen tissue sections during surgery.  The tissue may be from any part of the body and may require delicate and precise preparation.  They prepare and use a variety of nonstandard or special stains, some of which require microscopic differentiation.  They are responsible for cutting serial sections of complicated anatomical structures requiring precise positioning and delicate preparation.  They may perform duties in training to prepare tissue for electron microscopic study.  These duties require practical understanding of the chemistry, biology, and anatomy involved.  This work often involves significant personal contacts with physicians, scientists, and pathologists.

In contrast, the GS-7 histopathology technician performs a variety of extremely difficult, delicate, and complex tissue tests including the preparation of frozen sections for rapid diagnosis of tissue during surgery.  Without supervision, GS-7 histopathology technicians are often responsible for preparing tissue for electron microscopic study.  Another assignment may be that of taking photomicrographs.  The tissue specimens with which the GS-7 works may be of any size and condition from any part of the body.  He or she prepares a wide variety of specially stained slides requiring many complex and delicate processes.  After the histopathology technician examines the slides microscopically, he or she accepts or rejects slides on the basis of proper staining reactions.  The GS-7 histopathology technician must be proficient in recognizing tissue from any part of the body and be able to identify the origin and the type of tissue.  At this level, the work typically involves significant personal work contacts with pathologists and other physicians.

Characteristic of the GS-7 grade level, the appellants perform a wide variety of special, difficult, delicate, and demanding techniques including immunologic, histochemical, special, and nonstandard stains.  They cut and stain frozen sections for rapid diagnosis on a daily basis and routinely prepare specimens for electron microscopic study.  In addition, the appellants review every slide for proper staining reactions and work very closely with pathologists.  The appellants’ work meets, but does not exceed the GS-7 grade level.  Therefore, this factor is credited at the GS-7 grade level.

Control over the Work

This factor covers the availability of guidelines and instructions, and the direction, control, and guidance exercised by pathologists, medical technologists, and/or supervisory pathology technicians.  It includes the kind and degree of supervision over work during its performance and the nature and extent of the review of reports of tests, examinations, and determinations performed.

The pathologist has the ultimate responsibility for the laboratory findings and for any decision made within the laboratory based on these findings.  Therefore, all laboratory work is subject to review by the pathologist.  The extent of this review varies with the kind of test involved, and confidence, trust, and reliance the pathologist places on the individual technician and on any intermediate professional supervisor.  As the individual technician demonstrates proficiency, skill, competence, and reliability, he or she is accorded more and more freedom and finality.  He or she is held responsible for the accuracy and reliability of the results of the tests he or she performs.  However, he or she cannot relieve the supervisor and/or the pathologist of responsibility.

For GS-6 histopathology technicians, there is very little review of the work upon completion.  Assistance and guidance is provided in the microscopic evaluation of nonstandard or specially stained tissues.  During preparation of rapid frozen sections during surgery, typically the GS-6 histopathology technician works under the general supervision and guidance of the pathologist.  When they prepare tissue for the electron microscope, GS-6 technicians are closely guided and reports are fully discussed to increase their understanding of differentiating cellular structure of specimens and to improve their skill.  Written guidelines and oral instructions do not cover all aspects of the GS-6 histopathology assignment.  He or she knows by virtue of experience or from the general literature, not by instruction or laboratory manuals.

At the GS-7 grade level, written and oral instructions do not cover all aspects of the GS-7 histopathology technician’s assignment.  He or she must extend and expand known procedures and techniques covering related situations to the assignment at hand.  He or she must interpret, modify, and adapt instructions to apply to new and unusual situations.  The GS-7 histopathology technician typically works under the general direction and supervision of a medical technologist or a pathologist.  Because the technician is recognized as having a high level of knowledge and experience and unusual skill in performing the work, the pathologist can accept the histologic preparations and staining reactions with only occasional requests for additional or corrective procedures.  Because of the volume of tissues processed in the laboratory, and because the pathologist has great confidence in the technicians’ competence to produce consistently reliable results, the pathologist seldom checks the validity of the many technical procedures involved in the preparation of tissues for microscopic examination.

Characteristic of the GS-6 grade level, the appellants typically work under general supervision in performing a variety of procedures.  While all their slides are reviewed by the Supervisory Histopathology Technician before going to the pathologists for diagnosis, this review is conducted not to check the appellants’ proficiency but to fulfill a CAP requirement.  While guidelines dictate the laboratory maintain written guidelines and instructions for all procedures, the appellants perform many procedures by virtue of their experience, not by instruction or manual.  However, unlike the GS-7 grade level, the appellants do not extend and expand known procedures and techniques covering related situations to new and unusual situations.  Instead when the appellants encounter gaps in their instructions, they refer to the pathologists for guidance.  Such situations are also not regular and recurring with sufficient frequency in the position classification process so as to impact the level credited for this factor.  Therefore, this factor is credited at the GS-6 grade level.

Summary

The Nature of Assignment is evaluated at the GS-7 level while Control over the Work is graded at the GS-6 level.  Longstanding OPM classification policy cautions care must be taken to ensure the classification decision is in concurrence with the total concept of the grade as depicted in the PCS.  Determining the intent of the PCS requires consideration of the interrelationship of Nature of Assignment and Control over the Work.  When applying a two-factor narrative PCS, the lower of the two grade levels controls the grade of the position as a whole to ensure the decision is in harmony with the overall concept of the grade since the full intent of the higher grade level is not met.  Therefore, we find the work is properly classified at the GS-6 grade level.

Decision

The appellants’ position is properly classified as Histopathology Technician, GS-646-6.

 

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