(TNS) — The emergency decision last week to shut down the online system of the agency that conducts government background investigations could create significant delays for contractors and hamper their ability to staff high-level projects and meet deadlines, according to some contractors and two U.S. senators.
The delay could have a domino effect, affecting the already backlogged maintenance schedule for the Navy's fleet, former and current Navy officials acknowledge.
"The timing is such that turnaround periods for the ships are so tightly wound that any interruption is felt," said retired Vice Adm. Pete Daly, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute and former deputy commander of Fleet Forces.
The Office of Personnel Management says it shut down its online questionnaire site known as e-QIP on June 26 to patch vulnerabilities, and it will likely be offline for four to six weeks. The agency says the repercussions of taking down the questionnaire should be minor.
Navy officials agree, saying the move will not cause significant delays because the OPM has created a way for people to obtain lower-level interim security clearances. This is particularly helpful at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, where a significant number of those hired fall into that category.
But some contractors say they are feeling the pinch, and officials across the board acknowledge that if e-QIP - Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing - remains offline for a long time, the impacts will be felt.
"That suspension is going to have a significant ripple effect that gets broader and wider as it goes on," said Stan Soloway, head of the Professional Services Council, a national trade association representing nearly 400 government contractors.
"If this is really six weeks of a shutdown, the effects will not be minor," he added. "They may not be cataclysmic, but they won't be minor - not minor for the individual, not minor for a company contracted to do the work, not minor for an agency that has a work plan that might need to readjust."
The shutdown comes at a chaotic time for the OPM, which suffered a massive data breach. On Thursday, the agency confirmed that the personal information of some 21.5 million Americans was compromised. On Friday, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta resigned.
Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have been among several outspoken lawmakers critical of the OPM's handling of the data breach. For weeks, the agency revealed few details, leaving millions of people in limbo.
Warner, who is on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Kaine have also been vocal about the agency's handling of the e-QIP shutdown.
The OPM conducts background investigations for all defense contractors requiring security clearances and many other federal workers across some 100 agencies. Last year, the agency completed more than a million background checks using e-QIP.
"I understand you need to take time out to figure out whether the ongoing clearance process has been compromised," Warner said in an interview earlier in the week.
"It just strains all credibility that in a process that's already taking too long, that this kind of breach is not going to cause more delays," said the senator, a technology investor who made his fortune as a cellphone industry pioneer. "As a hard tech person, I have a hard time believing that's the truth."
Last week, the OPM and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced interim procedures to help offset delays from the e-QIP shutdown. They authorized paper submissions of the lengthy questionnaires to local agencies that can initiate investigations and grant interim security clearances. Those documents will not be transmitted to the OPM. When the site goes back up, applicants can again fill them out online, the agency said.
But this applies only to secret and lower-level clearances. Top secret or higher clearances are essentially on hold until e-QIP is restored.
Navy officials say this will mitigate most of the impact to hiring, particularly at shipyards. Hiring continues at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, which aims to add 1,500 workers by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, spokeswoman Terri Davis said.
The shipyard has hired 600 personnel this year and offered jobs to another 500, she said. She did not indicate how many of the remaining openings would require top-level clearances.
Daly said the fleet is so stretched that small things exacerbate the problem. A Navy official who is knowledgeable on the issue but did not want to be identified confirmed there is concern about the impact.
John Owens, president of Prevailance Inc., a consulting and contracting firm in Virginia Beach, said he's already come up against the shutdown. He has a potential employee whose high-level clearance expired.
"I am losing money on that contract alone," he said. "And that's happening throughout the industry."
Owens said he has several other high-level security positions to fill and will have to look for people who already have clearance.
Soloway and Warner each said they were not questioning the decision to take the site offline, but OPM needs to be more forthcoming with those affected to help them prepare for likely delays.
"Be straight with folks," Warner said. "There's a series of questions about interim approvals and such."
Soloway said he spoke with one company that has 35 high-level hires to process but can't.
"We have to prepare for the ramifications," he said. "We are not seeing a lot coming out of the agency about the implications - in terms of your own project planning, your contractors."
The senators acknowledged that the downtime will allow the OPM to catch up on its backlog, but it also means new applications will be piling up. The OPM conducts some 20,000 to 30,000 submissions each week.
But Mark Jacobson, an OPM spokesman, said the shutdown likely won't add much to the existing backlog.
"That's a very reasonable concern, but frankly, we are not worried about it," he said. "The bottlenecks are all over the place. E-QIP is not the bottleneck.
"Are there going to be disruptions? Yes," he added. "Is it going to be as dramatic as the senators are worried about? Absolutely not."
©2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.