DFAS union keeps watchful eye on AI

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Artificial intelligence (AI) has joined automation/robotics on the list of projects for Defense Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS) functions being reviewed by the DFAS union for outcomes including potential job impacts.

A briefing in early March with DFAS management officials will outline for the union an AI tryout/pilot project to help determine potential for better meeting customer needs, said Edward Abounader, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)/DFAS National Council. He also is president of the AFGE local at Rome DFAS at Griffiss park.

“My impression...the pilot (project) is going to try to see if AI can be used to assist in responding to customer needs” more satisfactorily and provide better service, Abounader said Monday. The tryout is to help “determine if (there’s) value in using it...see whether or not it’d be successful if implemented on a wider scale.”

The union and management are “on the same page” in aiming to deliver the DFAS service in the most efficient and cost-effective way while providing assistance for employees to do their jobs better, Abounader remarked. He also cited a union emphasis to minimize or see no impact on the numbers of jobs, and to avoid scenarios for AI to “do something instead of employees;” he further referred to “assist and not eliminate,” regarding jobs.

DFAS management previously has said that such initiatives are not aimed at reducing positions, but at improving efficiencies and helping employees better use their skills. The union has monthly meetings with management on the implementation of automation/robotics projects, and now the AI tryout/pilot will be “part of the same briefing,” Abounader noted.

“A number of robotics projects...have been started” at multiple DFAS sites, said Abounader, and the union is “waiting for final outlines of how they’re working” plus feedback reports from employees.

Regarding potential job impacts, Abounader said the union “always has to remain vigilant” especially for the DFAS locations in Rome and in Limestone, Maine. They include many accounting technicians and data-entry positions, and are “ancillary sites,” he noted. The other DFAS locations include Indianapolis, Ind., along with Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio.

Members of Congress have included provisions in National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) legislation for Congressional committee reviews of certain proposed DFAS personnel changes if they develop. In a December announcement by the office of U.S. Sen Charles Schumer, D-NY, regarding the fiscal 2021 NDAA, Abounader said “this is a tremendous benefit to the ongoing automation initiatives that could directly impact employment at DFAS.”

Regarding automation/robotics, Abounader said Monday “we want the most efficient and effective delivery of service,” plus “trying to balance that versus any potential loss of employment.” The union is taking a “a similar approach” to AI, he added, with it to “be included in monthly meetings” with management to inform the union about what the project does and “potential impact.”

The union does not yet have specifics about DFAS locations where the AI tryout/pilot will be developed, Abounader commented. He said “it may work, or it may not.”

Rome DFAS has about 960 employees, and over 95% are teleworking remotely, said Abounader; opportunities to telework from home were expanded last spring throughout DFAS locations due to COVID-19. Observing “productivity numbers...slightly higher” now and employees are “home, safe, getting paid,” Abounader said it has “worked out well for both sides.”

At Rome DFAS, much of the work involves processing Army financial accounts including payroll, vendor payments and travel expenses. DFAS is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense.

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