West Virginia tech workers seek legislative help amid fears their jobs will be outsourced

By Lawrence Messina, AP
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lawmakers hear W.Va. tech worker outsourcing fears

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A House-Senate committee voted Tuesday to seek an audit of the state Office of Technology after hearing from state workers who believe their jobs are destined for privatization.

The interim Joint Committee on Technology wants an independent review of the agency’s exploration of outsourcing computer-related positions.

The action followed a public hearing attended by more than 50 information technology workers. Several warned lawmakers that the agency seeks to privatize the writing and maintenance of computer programs.

One, Jennifer Ayers, questioned the cost savings from such a move. She estimated that private contractors charge between $65 to $150 an hour, while the average rate for a state worker is below $30. She also said that the state pays one firm, Deloitte Consulting, $12 million annually to run one large accounting-related computer program. Several hundred state workers, meanwhile, manage 500 other applications for around $21 million a year.

“I think the (program) outsourcing is successful for Deloitte, but not for the taxpayers of our state,” Ayers said.

Gladys Sasser asked the committee to consider the state trooper who performs a late-night traffic stop. The trooper is having trouble accessing the computer system that would reveal that the vehicle has been stolen, and the driver’s license suspended.

Sasser said a state technology worker now is on call around the clock to help him. She asked lawmakers to consider what support he might receive if the system was outsourced.

“He is at risk for not having the information available,” Sasser said.

The state’s chief technology officer, Kyle Schafer, also spoke at the hearing. He said his agency is considering several options to address rising costs and an aging computer infrastructure.

Continuing to handle programming in-house remains an option, Schafer said, but he noted that replacing two major applications recently cost the state a combined $36 million.

“I think that’s a viable option, but quite honestly that’s going to be a fairly expensive option,” Schafer said.

Schafer told the committee that he wants to solicit basic information from would-be vendors to weigh whether outsourcing is an alternative option.

“We don’t have information about what third-party providers can offer,” he said. “My proposal is to get an expression of interest out on the street.”

The West Virginia Public Workers Union Local 170 has sued Schafer and his office to block such bid requests. Lawyers for the state have sought the Kanawha Circuit lawsuit’s dismissal, arguing that it was not filed properly.

That lawsuit alleges that Schafer has failed to submit several reports required by a recent reorganization of his agency. He told the committee that his office filed some of those reports Monday.

Schafer also estimated that the average state computer application is 12 years old. Some are too old to accept modern security upgrades, leaving them vulnerable, he said.

But technology worker Bob Bryant told the committee that he manages advanced software at the Division of Labor, allowing an almost paperless office at that agency. He also cited examples of contractors shipping their technology jobs overseas, and of such contracted data falling into the hands of identity thieves.

Several of Wednesday’s speakers criticized Schafer and his overall handling of the technology office. One, Craig Cotsmire, called on Gov. Joe Manchin to demand Schafer’s resignation.

The audit would also examine other states’ forays into outsourcing computer services. West Virginia workers have noted costly problems with privatized systems in Texas and Virginia. The review would also address the fate of technology workers if Schafer’s agency was to pursue private contractors.

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