OPM decries patchwork of pay systems for law enforcement

Congress should eliminate the patchwork of federal law enforcement pay and benefits systems and provide agencies with greater flexibility to build their own mechanisms for compensating federal officers, the Office of Personnel Management recommended in a report issued Friday.

The variation in pay and benefits across agencies "harms morale, and creates staffing disruptions and governmental costs unnecessarily," said OPM deputy associate director for pay and performance policy Donald Winstead during a press briefing Friday.

As a result, the report argues that Congress should authorize OPM to create a framework to guide agencies in developing their own systems. OPM would watch over the process to ensure that officers doing similar work in different agencies are compensated fairly and that costs are contained. Congress required OPM to produce the report last year when it passed the 2003 Federal Law Enforcement Pay and Benefits Parity Act.

After years of uncoordinated legislation and litigation surrounding law enforcement compensation, myriad compensation systems exist, differing widely from one agency to the next. Some officers, such as agents at the FBI, Secret Service and Border Patrol, receive greater salary rates and more generous retirement and overtime benefits, than other civil servants.

Capitol police officers and Supreme Court police also qualify for such benefits. But other law enforcement officers in similar positions, such as police officers at the Veterans Affairs Department and National Institutes of Health, do not. Agencies that offer less generous pay and benefits have been plagued with higher levels of turnover.

Another problem is that federal law enforcement pay, particularly at the entry level, has lagged behind pay rates of local and state police forces in high cost of living areas such as New York City and San Francisco.

Winstead said the solution lies in providing agencies with more flexibility to respond to market conditions, set pay rates, and reward employees based on performance. Congress has already granted those authorities to the Defense and Homeland Security departments. But Winstead said that OPM believes "this could result in a situation in which there is not a level playing field, with some agencies having greater flexibility than others," unless Congress acts quickly to authorize governmentwide reform.

Winstead added that proposals in Congress, advocated by law enforcement employee unions, to raise pay rates across the board, and to grant greater benefits to particular agencies, would do more harm than good. "They don't allow targeted solutions and can result in unnecessary and unintended costs," he said.

The OPM report also says that Congress should rethink the rationale behind the law enforcement retirement system, which was set up in the 1940s to ensure a young and vigorous workforce. It provided officers with a larger retirement annuity than other federal workers, and allowed them to retire at age 50 with 20 years of experience. It also set a mandatory retirement age of 55, since raised to 57.

Because of improved health, law enforcement officers are able to work longer, the report says. As a result, OPM is considering a new "second tier of law enforcement [retirement] benefits" that would fall somewhere in between the current system for officers and the less-generous system provided for other federal workers.

Already, the report has raised the ire of employee union advocates, who argue that the flexibilities granted to agencies like DHS and Defense eviscerate merit system protections.

"Implementing the ideas in the OPM report would hurt the very employees the administration admits are critical to the nation's security," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley in a press release. "And there is no justification for doing that."

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