Briefing

Where the Grass Is Greener

Federal employees might think they've fallen on hard times, with a meager 1.4 percent pay raise on the horizon and health care premiums continuing to climb. But their private sector peers don't necessarily see it that way. Here are a few reasons why:

Premium pay. A recent USA Today analysis found that while the private sector is more lucrative for select professionals, including lawyers and veterinarians, the government paid better on average in 83 percent, or 180 out of 216 comparable occupations in 2008. There are many ways to slice the data, with some showing far less of a gap, but the study has created quite a stir.

Bountiful benefits. USA Today's salary figures did not include benefits. The paper notes that in 2008, the government dished out $40,785 per employee in benefits alone, while private sector companies spent $9,882 per worker.

Cheap retirement program. The Thrift Savings Plan might not have as many bells and whistles as private sector 401(k) programs, but it boasts lower administrative costs. In recent years its costs have been less than $5 for every $10,000 invested, which is less than five basis points. Comparable private sector plans can cost 50 to 80 basis points. More health care choices. Federal employees have a full menu of insurance options. The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program offered more than 230 health plan choices for 2010, including 30 in the Washington area. That's not to mention dental and eye care options.

Flexible schedules. Some federal employees have the option to work a little extra each day and get every other Friday off. Seventy percent of readers who responded to an October 2009 Government Executive survey on work-life balance said their agencies offered flex time.

-Amelia Gruber

Unlucky In Love

Can you be fired for following your manager's bad advice? Turns out, yes, you can.

That's what happened to Mirna Olmos, a former Customs and Border Protection officer in New York, when the federal government canned her for dating and then marrying an illegal immigrant. Having a personal relationship with an illegal immigrant is a no-no for CBP employees.

But Olmos, whose appeal was denied in 2009 and recently reaffirmed in the federal circuit, claimed that her union president and two agency supervisors told her that CBP permitted employees to marry illegal immigrants. That information was incorrect.

So after telling her bosses she had married Rafael Vanegas, a Colombian immigrant, Olmos was fired. She said she was unaware of Vanegas' status when they first met, but knew he was in the country illegally before they were married.

Not only did Olmos lose her job, but she lost her husband too. Vanegas returned to Colombia in December 2006 to obtain an immigrant visa, but since has been unable to rejoin his wife in the United States.

-Robert Brodsky

Feeling the Aftershocks

After spending two weeks at the U.S. embassy in Haiti with the U.S. Government Joint Information Center, Gordon Duguid, acting deputy spokesman for the State Department, saw devastation and dedication in the aftermath of the 7.0 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1 million more homeless.

Q: Did you find your work difficult? Were you improvising a lot?

A: The entire operation, although not an improvisation, was the first time that this had ever been done. We were working amidst a tragedy, but the actual work and the way we were working as professionals was exciting in that we were being able to draw off of our colleagues. I don't know many people who were not working 20 hours a day. We had 1,000 people at the height of my time there. Everybody was sleeping on the floor. Everybody was eating MREs [military meals ready to eat].

Q: Was there any group of employees that inspired you the most?

A: I had the chance to speak to a number of people, both official Americans, Foreign Service nationals and Haitians. Of the group, I would pick out the Foreign Service nationals who worked for the U.S. embassy and who also worked for other constituent parts of the effort. These people were tremendously dedicated. They had suffered tragedy to the same extent as their compatriots, and yet they were at work as soon as they could be.

-Jessica Lambertson

Straight Talk

The Pentagon is treading on an emotional minefield as it studies the ramifications of lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military. Evangelical military chaplains are giving opponents of a repeal ammunition. In February, the Christian legal nonprofit Alliance Defense Fund urged Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama to reconsider their decision to address how to roll back the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The organization sounded alarms about "the inevitable conflict it would produce with military chaplains' religious liberty," adding, "it is a particularly unwise time to raise this threat."

But Senate Democrats pledged to move quickly to overturn the ban, after Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at a February hearing that "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do."

Republicans warned against jumping the gun, asking lawmakers to hold off on a vote until after a thorough review.

-Dawn Lim

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