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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

Anita J. Dawson, et al.
Histopathology Technician GS-646-6
Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service
Chalmers P. Wylie Ambulatory Care Center
Veterans Health Administration
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Columbus, Ohio
Histopathology Technician
GS-646-6
C-0646-06-02

Robert D. Hendler
Classification and Pay Claims Program Manager
Agency Compliance and Evaluation
Merit System Accountability and Compliance

06/17/2016


Date

As provided in section 511.612 of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations, this decision constitutes a certificate that 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, appendix 4, section G (address provided in appendix 4, section H).

As indicated in this decision, our findings show the appellant's official position description (PD) does not meet the standard of adequacy described in section III.E of the Introduction.   Since PDs must meet the standard of adequacy, the agency must revise the appellant's PD to reflect our findings.  The servicing human resources office must submit a compliance report containing the corrected PD and a Standard Form 50 showing the personnel action taken.  The report must be submitted within 30 days of this decision to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) office that accepted the appeal.

Introduction

On October 6, 2015, OPM's Agency Compliance and Evaluation (ACE) Chicago accepted a group classification appeal from Ms. Anita J. Dawson, Jennifer L. Hysell, and Mary E. Brokamp who occupy an identical additional position (hereinafter referred to as position) in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service, Chalmers P. Wylie Ambulatory Care Center, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, in Columbus, Ohio, currently classified as Histopathology Technician (HT), GS-646-6.  The appellants believe their position should be upgraded to GS-8.  OPM received the agency's completed administrative report on October 28, 2015, and has accepted and decided this appeal under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.).

Background and general issues

The record shows the agency classified the appellants' current PD (PD#03724-A) as HT, GS-646-6, on May 12, 2014.  In their original appeal request, the appellants assert they should be graded at the GS-9 to GS-11 level, but did not provide any rationale referring to published OPM position classification standards (PCS) to support their request.  Subsequently, the appellants proposed comparing their work to the Medical Technologist, GS-644, series.  However, they later clarified that they believed their work matched the HT work in the GS-646 series at the GS-8 grade level.

The appellants make various statements about their agency's classification review processes, compare their position to higher-graded positions at other VHA facilities, and cite the complexity and variety of work they perform as justification for the increase to the GS-8 grade.  They also cite the high volumes of work they perform as support for increasing their grade.

By law, we must classify positions solely by comparing their duties and responsibilities to OPM PCSs and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Since comparison to PCSs and guidelines is the exclusive method for classifying positions, we cannot compare the appellants' position to others, which may or may not be classified properly, as a basis for deciding the appeal.  Therefore, we have considered the appellants' statements only insofar as they are relevant to making that comparison.  In addition, volume of work cannot be considered in determining the grade of a position (The Classifier's Handbook, chapter 5).

Like OPM, the appellants' agency must classify positions based on comparison to OPM PCSs and guidelines.  The agency also has primary responsibility for ensuring that 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 theirs, the agency must correct their classification to be consistent with this appeal decision.  Otherwise, the agency should explain to them the differences between their position and the others.

The appellants believe their current PD is inaccurate because it does not mention specific duties and responsibilities associated with procedures such as bone marrow (i.e., a procedure that removes a small sample of marrow from inside the bone for testing), lymph node (e.g., preparation of lymph node tissue for microscopic testing), and the xylene recycler (e.g., equipment used to recycle the hazardous chemical xylene for fiscal and environmental purposes). The appellants' supervisor agrees the specific duties and responsibilities identified by the appellants are not included in their current PD. Nevertheless, he asserts all procedures performed by the appellants, except Mohs (i.e., tissue samples obtained during a microscopically controlled surgical technique developed by Dr. Frederic Mohs in 1938 to treat common types of skin cancer), are covered by general statements within the PD and certified the PD's accuracy.

However, after considering all available information, we have determined that the appellants' actual duties and responsibilities are not fully consistent with those described in their PD. For example, the PD states that the appellants perform "immunohistochemical staining using both manual and automated methods in accordance with standardized protocols," but the record shows that the appellants do not perform any immunohistochemical processes or procedures. The PD also makes many references to the appellants' duties and responsibilities associated with processing cytological specimens. However, the record shows that the appellants do not perform procedures on cytological specimens. Additionally, the PD does not describe processes and procedures associated with bone marrow, lymph node, and the operation and maintenance of the xylene recycler, previously described in this decision, which are performed regularly by the appellants.

Because PDs must meet the minimum standard of adequacy as described on pages 10-11 of the Introduction, the appellants' PD must be updated so there is a clear understanding of the duties and responsibilities representing the approved classification. Regardless, an OPM decision classifies a real operating position, and not simply a PD. We have decided this appeal based on an assessment of the actual work assigned to and performed by the appellants.

Position information

The Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Service of the Ambulatory Care Center at the Chalmers P. Wylie VA Medical Center is responsible for processing a variety of histologic and pathologic tissue samples for the Medical Center and associated inpatient and outpatient clinics.

The appellants prepare and stain tissue for a variety of routine tests and procedures, such as hematoxylin and eosin (H&E), retie, iron, and trichrome stains on liver biopsies, as well as giemsa stain on antrum specimens. They also process non-routine tissue such as lymph node, Mohs, bone marrow, and frozen sections.  The appellants evaluate the suitability  of specimens  for sectioning  and staining by ensuring the tissue  is from  the correct organ or anatomical region  of the body  and the margins  are adequately  sized, complete, clear, and readable. The appellants prepare each tissue specimen for analysis which includes, but is not limited to, specimen accessioning (i.e., numbering of specimen once it is received by the lab), tissue fixation (i.e., placing tissue in a liquid preservative to keep the cells in as natural a state as possible), decalcification (i.e., the chemical removal of calcium from tissue for testing purposes),  frozen  section  preparation (i.e., quick-freezing, cutting, and staining of tissue for rapid surgical diagnosis, etc.),  routine tissue  embedding  and cutting (i.e., fixing tissue in paraffin or other fixatives and preparing thin sections of tissue for testing and diagnosis), and slide preparation  and staining (i.e., placing tissue on slides and applying the appropriate dye to highlight tissue characteristics).  The appellants orient the tissue when necessary by applying  ink markings to the  appropriate  area and margins and ensure that proper specimen conditions are maintained.  They also perform manual and automated, routine and non-routine processes and procedures in accordance with a variety of Federal, State, and facility guidance and protocols, such as the College of American Pathologists, Joint Commission (i.e., a nonprofit organization that accredits health care organizations and programs in the United States), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), VHA policies, facility standard operating procedures (SOP), manufacturer process manuals, etc.

The appellants utilize appropriate fixation and staining techniques, including HemaDiff stains, and label slides according to written procedures.  They determine if restaining may be necessary before submitting the sample to the pathologist based on established guidance.  The appellants occasionally propose modifications to existing tissue acquisition and treatment methods to meet specific needs.  For example, the appellants developed modifications for the Mohs inking protocol to improve tissue margin identification which was reviewed, approved, and incorporated into the current protocol by the pathologist prior to implementation by the appellants.  They operate a variety of automated and manual instruments and equipment for routine tissue preparation and processing (e.g., tissue processors, paraffin block trimmers, cassette and slide labelers, microtomes, water­ baths, microscopes, etc.), as well as more complex tissue preparation and processing (e.g., manual tissue stainers, specimen grossers and inkers, specimen freezers and cutters, H&E stainer, xylene and alcohol recyclers, etc.) using established guidance (e.g., the College of American  Pathologists, Joint Commission, VHA policies, etc.). They recognize and react to indications of equipment malfunction by removing the equipment from service, creating and submitting a work order to the facility 's Biomedical Equipment Repair team, and alerting their supervisor of the malfunction.

The appellants prepare a variety of solutions (e.g., formalin, sodium hydroxide, xylene, bluing, formaldehyde, etc.) and chemical reagents necessary for preparing and processing tissue samples.  They prepare controls (e.g., H&E, fungus, iron, trichrome, etc.) and conduct quality control checks on various chemicals and stains, verify control positives prior to delivery to pathologist, and change reagents biweekly.  They also produce and check the PH of complex chemical solutions used to stain tissue for microscopic differentiation by diluting pre-mixed concentrates (e.g., preparing clarifier with hydrochloric acid and distilled water, mixing ammonium hydroxide with distilled water to create bluing, creating a mixture of formaldehyde and Neutralex, etc.).

The appellants attend daily staff meetings where they receive instructions and assignments, discuss issues and problems, and receive training concerning new procedures and techniques.  They also provide information to a variety of medical staff (e.g., nurses, phlebotomists, interns, etc.) regarding proper methods and techniques for obtaining, labeling, and transporting tissue specimens.  They maintain and prepare necessary records and reports which provide a variety of information to the pathologist and other medical staff (e.g., the nature of daily work performed, types of stains used, numbers of slides used, the numbers and types of blocks, etc.), assure proper storage and maintenance of anatomic pathology specimens and records (e.g., slides, patient and quality control reports, etc.), and provide medical staff with information when appropriate.  The appellants also order chemicals and supplies for all laboratory departments and work with vendors to ensure the longest expiration dates for supplies to extend useful shelf-life and resolve issues associated with damaged or contaminated supplies.

To help decide the appeal, we conducted a telephone audit with the appellants on November 20, 2015, and with their supervisor on January 11, 2016.  In reaching our decision, we have carefully considered all of the information obtained from the interviews, as well as all other information of record provided by the appellants and their agency.

Series, title, and standard determination

The agency has placed the position in the Pathology Technician Series, GS-646, and titled it Histopathology Technician (with no parenthetical specialization) in conformance with titling practices of the GS-646 PCS.  The appellants agree with the series and title determination made by the agency, and after a thorough review of the record, we find the work performed by the appellants directly matches work described in the GS-646 PCS.  The position is allocated properly as Histopathology Technician, GS-646, for which there is a directly applicable, published PCS (Part III of the GS-646 PCS) that must be applied for grade level determination.

Grade determination

The GS-646 standard includes criteria for use in classifying nonsupervisory clinical laboratory aid and technician positions from GS-1 through GS-7.  This range portrays nonsupervisory performance level typical of the occupation as a whole.  Those positions which clearly and significantly exceed the criteria for the GS-7 level as depicted in the standard 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.

Nature of the Assignment

This factor measures the difficulty and complexity of the tests and examinations performed.   It also covers the skills, knowledge, 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 knowledge required, and significance and influence of the results.  For example, the test and examination procedures range from the simplest tissue preparation to the most complex staining procedure which will illustrate the desired tissue components.  The latter involves precise chemical treatment and microscopically controlled differentiation of tissue sections.  Each grade level definition is discussed in terms of illustrative examples of tests and examinations characteristic of the level of difficulty and responsibility at the grade.  These illustrations are not intended to be restrictive or complete since future technological and automation developments may alter the level of difficulty or responsibility for the technician performing the work.  The PCS recognizes that new tests will certainly be added and established ones may be discontinued.  The character of the difficulty and complexity of the work, rather than any specific illustration, should be given primary attention in evaluating any particular position.  An individual position is evaluated in terms of the actual difficulties and responsibilities involved in that assignment rather than in terms of the functions of the particular laboratory or laboratory section in which it is located.  For example, a position located in a reference laboratory or in a laboratory having the full range of anatomical pathology laboratory services may, in fact, involve performing relatively routine tests and examinations.

At the GS-6 level, HTs typically perform procedures in preparation of histologic sections requiring advanced and non-standardized 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 work contacts with physicians, scientists, and pathologists.

At the GS-7 level, HTs perform a variety of extremely difficult, delicate and complex tissue tests including the preparation of frozen sections for rapid diagnosis of tissue during surgery.  GS-7 HTs are often responsible for preparing tissue for electron microscopic study without supervision.  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.  They prepare a wide variety of special stained slides requiring many complex and delicate processes (e.g., alteration and standardization of the pH and concentration of the chemical solutions used in microscopic differentiations and control of the staining reaction to achieve precise staining results).  After the HTs examine the slides microscopically, they accept or reject slides on the basis of proper staining reactions.  They 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.

GS-6 is met.  Like the GS-6 level, the appellants perform a variety of standard, advanced, and non­ standard techniques and procedures associated with processing tissue for examination by the pathologist and other medical professionals in a laboratory setting (e.g., dermis, liver biopsies, bone marrow, etc.), as well as tissue samples obtained by surgeons requiring immediate results (e.g., frozen tissue sections, Mohs, etc.).  The appellants also use a variety of non-standard stains (e.g., trichrome used to distinguish certain cells from surrounding tissue, etc.) and are responsible for cutting serial sections of tissue samples requiring them to mark, carefully prepare, and orient  the tissue samples for proper identification by the surgeon and/or pathologist.   Similar to the GS-6 level, the tissue preparations performed by the appellants require knowledge and understanding of chemistry, biology, and anatomy (e.g., how to remove calcium, function of organs and tissue in the human body, anatomical location of various types of tissue, etc.) to identify the type of tissue (e.g., subcutaneous, connective, muscle, etc.) and process each tissue sample correctly.  Like the GS-6 level, the appellants coordinate their work in response to, and in support of, the surgeons and the pathologist.

GS-7 is not met.  Although the appellants perform difficult, delicate, and complex preparations on tissue samples provided to them by surgeons (e.g., Mohs, frozen sections, etc.), they do not prepare tissue for electron microscopic study nor do they perform photomicrographs.   In addition, although their routine work receives little review, the surgeon and/or pathologist regularly review complex, time-sensitive tissue samples (e.g., Mohs, frozen sections, etc.) for quality and adequacy and request additional tissue samples and stain preparations, when necessary.  Further, unlike GS-7 HTs who regularly assemble, measure, and mix individual compounds and chemicals to create their solutions, dyes, and stains, most of the appellants' solutions, dyes, and stains come pre-mixed or concentrated and are accompanied by step-by-step directions for diluting and testing before use.

Therefore, this factor is evaluated at the GS-6 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 the confidence, trust, and reliance the pathologist places on the individual technician and on any intermediate professional supervisor.  While the technician is held responsible for the accuracy and reliability of the results of the tests he or she performs, this cannot relieve the supervisor and/or the pathologist of responsibility.

At the GS-6 level, 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. Typically, GS-6 HTs work under the general supervision and guidance of the pathologist during preparation of rapid frozen sections during surgery. 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 HTs' assignments.  For example, they are expected to know what procedures to follow for preparing and staining a specimen for fungus, bacteria, or amyloid when requested by the pathologist by virtue of their experience or from the general literature, not by instruction or laboratory manuals.

At the GS-7 level, written and oral instructions do not cover all aspects of the HTs' assignments. They must extend and expand known procedures and techniques covering related situations to the assignment at hand.  They must interpret, modify, and adapt instructions to apply to new and unusual situations.  GS-7 HTs typically work under the general direction and supervision of a medical technologist or a pathologist.  Because they are 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 GS-7 HT's 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.

Like the GS-6 level, the appellants work under the general supervision of the pathologist and receive very little review upon completion of routine work.  However, during more delicate, complex tissue preparations (e.g., Mohs, frozen sections, etc.) the appellants work closely with the surgeon who coordinates with them during the surgical procedure to ensure the tissue samples are adequate and prepared satisfactorily.  Similar to the GS-6 level, the appellants' written and oral guidance associated with delicate and complex tissue preparation does not cover all aspects of the work.  For example, Mohs tissue removal is performed during live surgery and, depending on what the surgeon finds, may require the appellants to perform non-standard tissue preparations.

GS-7 is not met.  Although the appellants use their personal knowledge and experience to fill small gaps in available guidance in order to complete segments of work associated with processing a variety of tissue, unlike the GS-7 HT, with the exception of Mohs, most processes and procedures performed by the appellants are covered by a variety of guidance (e.g., VHA laboratory policies, SOPs, CAP requirements, etc.), which is readily accessed and understood by the appellants.  Contrary to the level of control expected of the GS-7 HT, the appellants cannot, on their own authority, extend or expand known procedures and techniques related to their work.  For example, the appellants proposed modifications to the Mohs inking protocol to improve tissue-margin identification which the pathologist reviewed, approved, and incorporated into the protocol prior to the appellants being allowed to implement the aforementioned modifications.  In addition, the appellants do not process cytological tissue samples. Instead, cytological tissue samples are sent to outside laboratories for testing.

Therefore, this factor is evaluated at the GS-6 level.

Summary

Because both the Nature of Assignment and Control of the Work are properly evaluated at the GS-6 level, the position is graded at the GS-6 level.

Decision

The appellant's position is properly classified as Histopathology Technician, GS-646-6.

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