Pay and Benefits Watch: What a week for your wallet

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Since last Thursday, federal employees' wallets have been for quite a ride.

It all began on Thursday morning, when the Senate approved the fiscal 2000 Treasury-Postal appropriations bill, clearing the act for President Clinton's signature.

The bill's best feature: a 4.8 percent pay raise for federal employees next year-on par with the 4.8 percent raise Congress has allotted for military personnel. Clinton had proposed a 4.4 percent hike, but civil servant champion Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., made sure federal employees got the higher increase.

High-level federal executives, who in recent years have more often than not received no raise because Congress has denied itself one, can also celebrate the Treasury-Postal bill. It did not include a provision freezing congressional and political appointee pay. That means the cap on Senior Executive Service pay will go up 3.4 percent next year.

The bill also includes good news for people itching to retire in the next few years. Congress is making Uncle Sam's authority to offer early outs permanent. The authority was set to expire this year. That means federal employees below retirement age but with many years of service will be able to get immediate, albeit reduced, pensions when they retire early from the government. (Keep in mind that agencies still must get authority from the Office of Personnel Management before offering early outs to employees.)

Another benefit in the Treasury-Postal bill is a new requirement that agencies must reimburse federal managers and professionals for half the cost of professional liability insurance. Previously, agencies could reimburse managers for such insurance, but didn't have to.

Now for the bad news. On Monday, the Office of Personnel Management announced that health insurance premiums will be going up an average of 9.3 percent next year. You may see an increase higher or lower than that in your health plan. Check GovExec.com's listing of premiums to see what you'll be paying next year.

As if all this news weren't enough, the Senate Wednesday morning passed the fiscal 2000 Defense authorization bill, sending that bill on to President Clinton.

Military personnel have much to celebrate in the bill: a 4.8 percent pay raise for next year, further increases for mid-grade and non-commissioned officers, retirement pay reform and participation in the Thrift Savings Plan.

For DoD civilians, the best news is in the buyout department: DoD will be able to offer employees buyouts of up to $25,000 until September 2003. Congress extended the Pentagon's authority to offer buyouts by two years; the authority was set to expire on Sept. 30, 2001. The bill also extends the expiration date for the authority to pay severance pay in a lump sum from Oct. 1, 1999 to Oct. 1, 2003.

The Defense authorization bill also eliminates the ceiling on pay for retired military officers who work as civilians for the federal government. The current ceiling is $110,700. About 6,000 military retirees are affected by the ceiling and lose an average of $800 per month in benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

What a difference a week makes.

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