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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

[appellant's name]
Cartographer
GS-1370-11
[organization]
United States Geological Survey
Department of the Interior
[city, state]
Cartographer
GS-1370-11
C-1370-11-02

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

09/23/2014


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 (Introduction), appendix 4, section G (address provided in appendix 4, section H).

Decision sent to:

[appellant’s and HR office addresses]

Introduction

On April 2, 2014, OPM’s Dallas Agency Compliance and Evaluation accepted a classification appeal from [appellant].  The appellant’s position is currently classified as Cartographer, GS-1370-11, but he believes it should be classified to the GS-12 grade level.  The position is assigned to the [organization] (Center), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Department of the Interior, in [city, state].

The appellant’s official position description (PD), number [number], is standardized and covers positions Center-wide.  The OPM accepted and processed separate classification appeals from two other employees occupying identical additional PDs.  The appellant is assigned to a different section in the Center with supervisory reporting relationships different from one of the other employees.  To fully consider the complexity of the project work performed by each employee, we have processed the appeals separately.  We received the complete agency’s administrative report (AAR) on May 20, 2014, and the appellant’s comments on the AAR on June 2, 2014.  The agency subsequently forwarded comments to OPM on June 13, 2014; in response, the appellant provided additional comments on June 26, 2014.  We have accepted and decided this appeal under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.).

Background and general issues

The appellant initially attempted to resolve the classification of his position through the negotiated grievance procedures.  In May 2011, he and other Center employees filed a grievance concerning the agency not promoting the position to the GS-12 grade level.  The appellant states his PDs and Standard Form (SF) 50s identify the GS-12 grade level as the full performance level (FPL) of the position.  As indicated by the transcript provided to OPM of the January 2014 arbitration hearing between the agency and union, the arbitrator determined the employees would file a classification appeal with OPM.  The arbitrator further states:

Pending that decision, that will resolve a fact issue in this case as to whether they have, in fact, from the date this grievance was filed or through currently are performing or have performed at the GS-12 level.  And based on that, the parties have agreed if they are or have, I will order an appropriate order of back pay…

As arranged by the arbitrator, grievance proceedings will be “held in abeyance” while OPM adjudicated the classification appeal.  The appellant subsequently filed a classification appeal with OPM.

The appellant submitted PD coversheets and SF 50s identifying the FPL of his position as GS-12.  The agency explains in its AAR to OPM:

[The appellant’s FPL] like all Cartographers was set at the FPL of GS-12.  Since that time the [name] Center was reorganized and became [the Center].  It has been determined that the FPL of GS-12 was not supportable for all Cartography work.  The employees filed a union grievance and entered into arbitration.  Management has asked HR not to make the changes in FPL until the arbitration process is complete.

The arbitrator suggests an OPM classification appeal would consider the appropriate classification of the duties and responsibilities performed by the appellant since May 2011, i.e., the filing date of the grievance.  The appellant submitted numerous performance appraisal and award forms, which he states includes language in the justification for the rating or award that describes GS-12 grade level work.  Quality of work, however, cannot be considered in determining the grade of a position (The Classifier’s Handbook, chapter 5).  The appellant submitted documents and mentions participating in a focus group, creating a poster, and other administrative or similar assignments not related to the primary and paramount work of his position.  Thus the work, in addition to being considered one-time or temporary duties, is not germane to and may not be considered in the classification of his position (Introduction, III.J.).  We further noted the performance appraisal and award forms date back variously from 2009 to 2012.  The appellant also provided work examples describing duties he performed as far back as 2009.  In adjudicating this appeal, our responsibility is to make our own independent decision on the proper classification of the existing duties and responsibilities assigned by management to the appellant’s position and performed by him.

Regardless of the arbitrator’s statements to the contrary, the OPM can consider only current duties and responsibilities in classifying positions (5 U.S.C. 5112).  Established OPM guidance requires that a representative work cycle be determined for establishing what work is characteristic of the work of a position for classification evaluation.  When identifying duties to consider in classifying a position, The Classifier’s Handbook instructs:

They should be only those duties currently assigned, observable, identified with the position’s purpose and organization, and expected to continue or recur on a regular basis over a period of time, such as one year.  The period of time considered should cover the full cycle of duties performed.  This may vary from a few months for very simple clerical work to a more lengthy period for work that involves long term cases or projects.

We must focus on the more recent work performed by the appellant constituting the current work cycle within the meaning of the classification process.  For the appellant’s position, 18 months is a reasonable timeframe during which a full cycle of work can be completed (i.e., the span of time marking the beginning of his latest project).  Therefore, our analysis will focus on the current work performed by the appellant during the most recent 18-month period.  Although the arbitrator erroneously suggests an OPM classification appeal would consider the appropriate classification of duties performed since May 2011, we note the appellant has been assigned to the same unit prior to that date and thus performing cartographic duties and responsibilities of similar type, nature, and complexity since May 2011.  We fully consider those duties under the grade determination section.

The arbitrator also suggests back pay as a remedy should it be determined the appellant is performing GS-12 grade level work.  It is well settled that employees are statutorily barred from receiving back pay for periods of misclassification (5 U.S.C. 5596(b)(3)).  See United States v. Testan, 424 U.S. 392, 400 (1976) and Erlyn D. Felder, B-202685, August 17, 1982.  Further, the U.S. Comptroller General states that an “…employee is entitled only to the salary of the position to which he is actually appointed, regardless of the duties performed.  When an employee performs the duties of a higher grade level, no entitlement to the salary of the higher grade exists until such time as the individual is actually promoted.  Consequently, back pay is not available as a remedy for misassignments to higher level duties or improper classifications” (CG decision B-232695, December 15, 1989).

The appellant states he performs work similar to GS-12 cartographers in his organization assigned to other projects.  However, positions which may on the surface appear similar may include significantly different duties and responsibilities that affect the classification.  By law, we must make our own classification decisions solely by comparing the appellant’s current duties and responsibilities to OPM position classification standards (PCS) and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Since comparison to standards is the exclusive method for classifying positions, we cannot compare the appellant’s current position to other positions that may or may not have been classified correctly.  Consequently, we based this appeal decision on the current duties and responsibilities assigned by management to the appellant’s position and performed by him.

Like OPM, the appellant’s 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 appellant considers his position so similar to others that they should be classified the same, then he may pursue the matter by writing to the human resources office of his agency’s headquarters.  In doing so, he should specify the precise organizational location, classification, duties, and responsibilities of the positions in question.  If the appellant’s position is so similar to other positions that they all warrant the same classification, the agency must correct the classification of those positions to be consistent with this appeal decision.  Otherwise, the agency should explain to the appellant the differences between his position and the others.

The appellant states he acts in the supervisor’s absence.  Work performed in the absence of another employee cannot be considered in determining the grade of a position (Introduction, Section III.J., and The Classifier’s Handbook, chapter 5).

In addition, the appellant asserts other Center cartographers have been either non-competitively promoted to the GS-12 grade level or offered training and other advancement opportunities not presented to him.  By law (5 U.S.C. 302 and 5102(a)(3)), agency management has the right to establish positions and determine the work assignable to each position.  Also see 5 U.S.C. 7106 with regard to organization situations under chapter 71 of title 5, U.S.C.  Such actions are not reviewable under the classification appeals process.

 Position information

The Center supports the acquisition and management of reliable geospatial data, products, and services through geospatial technical expertise and customer service for the USGS and the country.  The Center supports The National Map (TNM) which is a collaborative effort among the USGS and other Federal, State, and local partners to improve and deliver topographic information for the country.  Use for TNM includes recreational, scientific analysis, and emergency responses.

The appellant’s cartographer position is assigned to the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD) Unit of the NHD Section.  The unit is responsible for improving data quality and content of the NHD containing lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, canals, dams, and other surface water components of TNM.  The appellant’s work includes data preparation, assessment, integration, and analysis, as well as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications support.

We discuss the appellant’s project work in greater detail under the grade determination section.  In general, though, his work entails constructing complex datasets for use in TNM and GIS applications, analyzing formats of data and determining the most efficient methodology required for integrating data in TNM.  He collects, converts, and assures the quality of geospatial data.  The appellant’s first-level supervisor is the Unit Supervisor (a GS-1370-12 cartographer) and second-level supervisor is the Section Chief (a GS-1370-13 cartographer).

The appellant and second-level supervisor certified to the accuracy of his official standardized PD.  A position represents the duties and responsibilities that make up the work performed by an employee.  Those duties and responsibilities are customarily documented in a PD so the employee, supervisors, and other parties will know what essential features comprise the position.  Major duties are normally those occupying a significant portion of the employee’s time and should be only those duties currently assigned, observable, identified with the position’s purpose and organization, and expected to continue to recur on a regular basis over a period of time.  The appellant’s official PD is a standardized PD intended to cover multiple cartographer positions at the GS-11 level.  Standardized PDs typically use a broad description that does not provide the specificity that would be found in a PD developed for a single position.  Position classification appeal regulations permit OPM to investigate or audit a position and decide an appeal on the basis of the duties and responsibilities assigned by management and performed by the employee.  Because an OPM appeal decision classifies a real operating position and not simply the work depicted in a PD, this decision is based on the actual work assigned to and performed by the employee.

We find the PD of record contains the major duties assigned to and performed by the appellant, and we incorporate it by reference into this decision.  Though certifying to the accuracy of the PD, the second-level supervisor asserts the appellant does not perform two of the 11 major duties listed in the PD.  To ensure only duties assigned to and performed by an incumbent are considered for classification purposes, the PD should be amended or include an accompanying correction notice to document the discrepancies between duties actually assigned and performed from duties listed in the standardized PD.

We conducted a telephone audit with the appellant on September 5, 2014, and a telephone interview with his immediate supervisor on September 10, 2014.  On September 15, 2014, we conducted a telephone interview with a Center geographer who collaborated with the appellant to customize a work tool discussed later in the decision.  In reaching our classification decision, we carefully considered all of the information obtained from those interviews as well as written information provided by the appellant and his agency, including his official PD.

Series, title, and standard determination

The agency assigned the appellant’s position to the GS-1370 Cartographer Series, titled it Cartographer, and used the Job Family Position Classification Standard (JFS) for Professional Work in the Physical Science Group, GS-1300, to determine the grade of his position.  The appellant does not disagree and, after careful review of the record, we concur.

Grade determination

The GS-1300 JFS describes, in a narrative format, grade-level criteria for evaluating non-supervisory positions from GS-5 through GS-15 and includes appropriate language from the law, supplemented by more specific material, and illustrations of work appropriate to each grade level.  Positions are graded as a whole against the criteria found at differing grades in the standard and are then classified to the grade that best represents the overall demands of the work.

At the GS-11 level, the law describes positions performing, with wide latitude for the exercise of independent judgment, responsible work of considerable difficulty requiring somewhat extended professional, scientific, or technical training and experience which has demonstrated important attainments and marked capacity for independent work.

At the GS-11 level, the JFS describes scientists that plan and execute complex studies usually involving intensive investigations into one or more recognized phenomena.  The work typically involves conventional methods and techniques, though going beyond clear precedents, and requires adapting methods to the problems at hand and interpreting findings in terms of their scientific significance.  Finished products are reviewed for adequacy of conclusions and soundness of the procedures and methods used.  Assignments at this level generally do not involve radical departures from past practices or require the development of new, novel, or innovative approaches, methods, or techniques.  At the GS-11 level, scientists have wide latitude for exercising independent judgment in performing work of considerable difficulty requiring somewhat extended professional, scientific, or technical training and experience which has demonstrated important attainments and marked capacity for sound independent action or decision.

At the GS-12 level, the law describes positions performing, under general administrative supervision and with wide latitude for the exercise of independent judgment, professional, scientific, or technical work of marked difficulty and responsibility requiring extended professional, scientific, or technical training and experience which has demonstrated leadership and attainment of a high order in professional, scientific, or technical research, practice, or administration.

At the GS-12 level, the JFS describes positions that typically involve planning, executing, and reporting on original studies or ongoing studies requiring a fresh approach to resolve new problems.  The complexity of assignments requires extensive modification and adaptation of standard procedures, etc., and development of totally new methods and techniques to address problems for which guidelines or precedents are not substantially applicable.  Assignments typically include considerable breadth, diversity, and intensity; varied, complex features; and novel or obscure problems.  Completed work is reviewed primarily for general acceptability and feasibility, and scientific recommendations are normally accepted as sound without close review unless matters of policy or program resources are involved.

The appellant’s position meets the GS-11 level.  As at this level, he exercises independent judgment in performing cartographic work of considerable difficulty.  For example, he plans and executes the complex projects of his unit associated with the collection and maintenance of data comprising the NHD, one of the eight data layers of TNM.  The supervisor assigns projects to the appellant and provides general instructions where validation or compilation of hydrology data is required.  The appellant is assigned the lead for the Alaska image integration project.  The purpose of the project is to support digital topographic maps for the State of Alaska by updating coastlines and glaciers, adjusting hydrographic features to the imagery collected by Spot Image satellites and performing edits to correct data.  Based on the Statement of Work, the Section Chief identifies the priority areas comprised of numerous sub-basins, i.e., an area where all water drains to one outflow point, and quadrangles.  As project lead, the appellant assigns the sub-basins, which are identified by an eight-digit number, to the unit staff (hereafter referred to as editors) assigned to assist him with the project.

The appellant’s editor work involves checking out the appropriate hydrography dataset for the sub-basin he is working from the NHD stewardship website.  He operates various applications of the ArcGIS (i.e., the agency’s off-the-shelf GIS for working with maps and geographic information) in addition to the NHD GeoEdit Tool, a change detection model builder tool containing edit and automated quality check functions.  The Tool identifies the bodies of water and areas present in the NHD but missing from break line data, as well as the bodies of water and areas present in the break line data but not in the NHD.  The NHD is revised if any of the following four conditions occur:  (1) realign streams/rivers greater than 100 feet wide when the position of the banks move more than 750 feet; (2) add lakes/ponds 400,000 square meters or larger; (3) modify position of lakes/ponds that are larger than 1.0 square kilometers, that do not have an elevation value, if the shorelines are off more than 350 feet; or (4) add new area of complex channels if total width of area is greater than 100 feet.  The Tool identifies when these conditions occur as well as data quality errors or discrepancies, pointing the editor to areas of potential change.  When necessary, the appellant adds or edits features of the NHD using the Tool’s edit functions.  He completes the initial quality control checks built into the Tool against the NHD, running additional checks prior to submitting to the supervisor for approval.  The appellant’s cartographic work follows the unit’s internal policies and instructions.

The relevant illustration included in the JFS at the GS-11 level follows:

Performs one or more cartographic duties such as source assessment, geopositioning, data extraction and capture, and product generation.  Typical activities at this level include identifying and evaluating data sources for applicability and quality; operating stereoscopic instruments to perform automated and interactive point selection; extracting digital terrain data; editing and symbolizing content to produce a specific graphic product according to product specifications; and coordinating the day-to-day production processes for both digital and graphic geospatial output according to specifications for assigned projects.  Solves a variety of cartographic problems, adapts precedents or makes significant departures from previous approaches to similar projects to accommodate specialized requirements of some projects.  Exercises initiative and originality in solving problems relating to complex map finishing, revisions, automated cartography, and digital data.  Tests and evaluates new or modified cartographic instruments, techniques, methods, or practices.  Applies standard practices of other scientific disciplines as they relate to cartography.

Similarly, the appellant performs data extraction and capture duties and tasks associated with the collection, conversion, and conduct of quality assurance of geospatial data for the NHD.  As at the GS-11 level, he exercises initiative and originality when resolving the variety of cartographic problems he encounters as project lead, e.g., dealing with reach migration issues between the sub-basins assigned, determining how and where to integrate the Tool into work processes, and deciding if and how to break larger projects into manageable sub-projects.  The supervisor serves as the final level of quality assurance for data loaded into the NHD.  Once work is completed, the supervisor may conduct a quality check but will typically review the appellant’s work to ensure overall requirements are met and general instructions are followed.  This type of review is consistent with the GS-11 level JFS and illustration where work is reviewed for adequacy and soundness of procedures and methods used.

The appellant’s position does not meet the GS-12 level.  As project lead, his work entails overseeing day-to-day production, dispersing work to editors, and tracking production status.  The appellant collaborated with a geographer assigned to a different section at the Center to customize the Tool for the data analysis of his project.  He was involved in the graphical user interface, development, testing, and implementation phases of the Tool to ensure the functions were tailored properly for use in the operating environment.  Unlike the GS-12 level, this and other assignments do not involve original or ongoing studies requiring a fresh approach to resolve new problems.  Instead, this work matches the GS-11 illustration describing cartographers adapting precedents to accommodate specialized project requirements, exercising initiative and originality to solve problems related to automated cartography, and testing and evaluating new or modified cartographic instruments.

The appellant’s assignments involve the preparation, integration, output, and dissemination of geospatial data.  Though his work requires determining the course of action necessary to complete projects in addition to using ArcGIS and the Tool to edit or create data in the NHD, the work does not require extensive modification and adaptation of standard procedures and development of totally new methods and techniques to perform his work as described at the GS-12 level.  In addition, the appellant’s assignments do not involve the considerable breadth, diversity, and intensity; varied, complex features; and novel or obscure problems expected at the GS-12 level.  In contrast, the purpose of his work is to update and maintain the currency of NHD information.  The appellant’s work affects the timeliness, accuracy, reliability, and acceptability of geospatial data and the output generated from them.  The decisions and recommendations he makes normally involve the project’s workflow and efficiency; for example, he recommended dividing his current project into four separate sub-projects.  Though his supervisor assesses his work for general acceptability and feasibility, the appellant’s completed work does not involve making scientific, as opposed to workflow improvement, recommendations as expected at the GS-12 level.

The relevant illustration included in the JFS at the GS-12 level follows:

Develops and monitors the production of geospatial data to support agency geographic information systems and hardcopy map generation for a staff unit.  Work on inter- and intra-agency committees to develop and/or revise Federal standards for geospatial data.  Revises agency cartographic standards and specifications.  Provides staff advisory, consulting, and reviewing services.  Applies standard cartographic practices to new situations and solves novel or obscure problems.  Exercises initiative and originality in the solution of cartographic problems.  Serves as a technical authority on all aspects of cartography.

The appellant disseminates work and provides technical advice to the editors assigned to assist with his project.  After being notified regarding work completion, he assigns a new work unit to the editor and updates the spreadsheet tracking the units checked out and completed.  The appellant also occasionally contributes articles to the NHD newsletter describing project status, tasks, or other highlights.  However, this work is not comparable to the more demanding staff advisory and consulting services found at the GS-12 level.  In contrast to the illustration at the GS-12 level, the appellant does not work on inter- and intra-agency committees to develop and/or revise Federal standards for geospatial data nor does he revise agency cartographic standards and specifications.  Further, the Tool used for his work was developed as a special project by a Center geographer.  Management officials within the appellant’s organization decided to modify the existing Tool for broader application to production work and specifically to the Alaska project to filter through the voluminous data associated with that project.  The appellant was involved in the design and test phases of the Tool’s modification to ensure it was adequate and that the end product successfully located the boundaries or conditions established for his project.  After the Tool was successfully modified for operational use, he trained his project’s editors to use the Tool and ensured that ArcGIS was up-to-date to properly support the add-on Tool.  Though his work was critical to ensuring the Tool was made operational for use to his project, the original idea and development of the test software as well as the decision to modify it for his project’s use was made by individuals other than the appellant.  Also unlike the illustration at the GS-12 level, he does not exercise initiative and originality to solve cartographic problems.  Instead, the problems he resolves involve the reach migration issues between the sub-basins assigned, glitches with the operation of ArcGIS and the Tool, and other complications representative of the appellant’s day-to-day production work rather than being characteristic of novel or obscure problems as described at the GS-12 level.

Decision

The appellant’s position is properly classified as Cartographer, GS-1370-11.

 

 

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