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Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / A cybersecurity employee works inside the Cybersecurity Operations Center at the Tennessee Valley Authority offices in Chattanooga in October of 2019. As America's biggest government owned power utility, TVA is regarded as one of the richest targets for cyber terrorists.

Tennessee congressman Steve Cohen wants Congress to block an effort by the Tennessee Valley Authority to outsource the public utility's IT and cybersecurity services to foreign workers, a move that would displace about 108 TVA workers in Chattanooga and Knoxville next month. Yes — next month — during the worst national economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats, U.S. Rep. Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, asked that the fiscal relief measures being considered now in Washington to help prop up the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic also prevent the privatization and outsourcing of these and other federal jobs during this or any other national emergency.

"In the middle of a global health pandemic and national emergency, it is incomprehensible that TVA would outsource jobs held by hard-working Americans," Cohen wrote. "It is extremely disappointing that TVA is going against its own mission of 'making life better for the people of the Tennessee Valley' and is defending its decision to eliminate these jobs to 'leverage the market.' Unfortunately, it is clear that Congress must step in to ensure additional jobs are not outsourced as the economy begins to recover from the effects of COVID-19."

Not only that, but everyone raise your hand if you feel perfectly at ease with a decision to outsource cybersecurity and IT functions for a utility that operates nuclear plants within plume-sight distance of Chattanooga.

Yet, TVA, which was created as part of the New Deal in 1933 to help aid the impoverished southern Appalachian region during the aforementioned Great Depression, has entered into contracts with three software development contractors — Capgemini, which is based in France and has half its staff in India; the Canadian-based CGI, and Accenture Federal Services, which is headquartered in Virginia and is a subsidiary of the Irish-based Accenture plc.

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Read Congressman Steve Cohen's letter about TVA outsourcing information technology jobs

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TVA told its IT workers in the Chattanooga computer center last month that they should receive layoff notices by June.

TVA officials defend the move by saying it will help strengthen the utility's cybersecurity and IT operations. All of the contract workers who handle sensitive TVA data will be based in the United States, officials say, and the change is similar to what most other utilities and federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security already have done. TVA Chief Financial Officer John Thomas said the move isn't designed just to save money as much as it is to expand and upgrade IT resources for TVA by tapping into global companies that specialize in power distribution, billing, metering and other IT operations.

"Fundamentally, we did not enter into this simply as a dollar-and-cents decision," Thomas told the TVA board last week. "This is a fundamental change in the business model and it's about improving our capability and our ability to use the expertise that exists in the market. That requires us to move from in-house development to outside contract development."

And TVA president Jeff Lyash said, ""TVA, like every other business, needs to move toward taking advantage of the new cloud-based technologies and that means changing the nature of the workforce."

Yeah, well — we're not the only ones who are skeptical.

Gay Henson, who is employed at TVA and serves as president of Engineering Association, IFTPE Local 1937, finds several flaws with the change.

"Outsourcing the critical technology functions of a federally owned public utility to an overseas firm was always a bad idea," she said. "You're sending sensitive information to who knows who, in an unknown location, putting a huge chunk of the U.S. power grid at risk. To continue on this path now, when our entire economy is frozen and workers and families are desperate for income, isn't in the best interest of TVA or our nation."

Additionally, she said, TVA hasn't proven that outsourcing the work will save money, and it's contrary to TVA's mission of aiding the economic development in the Tennessee Valley. Especially now.

Cohen, too, is skeptical, noting that Capgemini has half of its workforce — or 100,000 workers — in India alone.

"Judging by other utility companies' actions, it is hard to remain optimistic that these jobs will remain in the United States," Cohen said "In 2017, when Pacific Gas and Electric laid off hundreds of workers in California, at least 70 of those jobs were outsourced to India."

Whether it's India, Ireland, France, Canada or even Virginia is beside the point. TVA makes electricity that is distributed along a 16,000-mile grid of high-voltage transmission lines webbing seven states. To do this, the massive public — owned by all of us — utility operates three nuclear plants, seven coal plants, 29 hydro plants, nine natural gas combustion plants, seven natural gas combined cycle plants, 15 solar energy sites, one wind energy site, one diesel generator site and one pump storage hydroelectric plant. And it employs about 10,000 people.

We think it is absolute folly for anyone to trust the cybersecurity and IT functions of all this to foreign workers. Ever. Period.

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