Agencies seek to standardize pay and benefits for civilians overseas

The Office of Personnel Management and departments of State, Defense and Labor soon will introduce a legislative proposal to standardize pay and benefits for civilian employees on assignment overseas, OPM Director John Berry said at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

"Providing consistent, comprehensive and competitive benefits must be part of our efforts to support our troops," Berry told members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's federal workforce panel.

Berry said the legislative proposal, which the administration will send soon to Capitol Hill, grew out of an interagency work group established in 2009 after the Government Accountability Office identified weaknesses and inconsistencies in pay and benefits for civilians sent overseas.

He said one of the most significant changes in the proposal would guarantee that all civilian employees going overseas receive at least the level of locality pay in Washington, and retain their rights to the locality adjustment they earn in the United States if that rate was higher. Currently, employees on temporary rotations overseas receive both their base pay and locality pay, while employees on longer assignments could receive different pay allocations depending on their agency and job. Berry said those changes could help agencies recruit volunteers for overseas assignments.

"Not only were we going to ask them to put themselves at greater harm, we were going to financially disadvantage them," Berry said. "That [change] is going to be a great relief to a number of civil servants as they're making this decision."

Another proposed change is making permanent OPM's ability to grant waivers on the amount of money employees serving in Iraq and Afghanistan can make in a year, which in 2010 is $199,700. OPM now has the temporary authority to grant waivers to individuals, but Congress needs to renew that authority on a regular basis. The proposed bill would permanently eliminate the aggregate pay limit for all civilians deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Berry said that while it was impossible to completely standardize all pay and benefits for civilians, because State Department employees could be working under the Foreign Service pay system, employees from other agencies are paid according to the General Schedule. Both groups will work alongside service members who receive military pay. But he said creating consistent policies would make it easier for federal pay processing centers to avoid errors and ensure that employees receive the pay they deserve.

Members of the work group said at the hearing they were not ready to unveil the full proposal yet. But Clifford Stanley, Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said the bill also would include recuperation leave to keep civilians fresh during their assignments and readjustment leave to help them manage personal matters when they return home.

"I know that civilians serving in harm's way proudly answer the call of duty," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the subcommittee. "We must ensure they have the training and support that they need."

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