Lawmakers renew push to grant employees law officer benefits

House members recently introduced a bill renewing an effort to grant additional federal officers law enforcement status and the more generous retirement benefits that go along with it.

The legislation (H.R. 1073) would provide Customs and Border Protection officers, police at the Veterans Affairs Department and other employees the ability to retire at age 50 with 20 years of service.

Under current law, only employees classified as law enforcement officers have that benefit. Officers without such status get the same retirement benefits as regular federal employees, who are not eligible for retirement until they have 30 years or more of service and are at least are 55 years old.

"A 20-year retirements bill for these employees will reduce turnover, increase yield, decrease recruitment and development costs, and enhance the retention of a well-trained and experienced workforce," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif.

The bill, introduced by Filner and Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., is similar to one lawmakers introduced several years ago. But even with strong bipartisan support, the measure failed to make it out of the House Government Reform Committee. Union officials are hoping the bill has better chances with the new congressional leadership.

The "tragic irony" for employees without law enforcement status "is that the only time these federal officers are classified as 'law enforcement officers' is when they are killed in the line of duty -- and then their names are inscribed on the wall of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial" in downtown Washington, the lawmakers wrote in a letter to colleagues.

Law enforcement officers also receive a higher annuity upon retirement. An officer retiring at age 50 with 20 years of service and a $65,000 salary would receive $22,000 more annually in retirement benefits than a standard federal employee retiring under the Federal Employees Retirement System.

"The simple fact," the bill's sponsors wrote, "is that these officers have dangerous jobs and deserve to be recognized as law enforcement officers just like the others with whom they serve side by side. These valiant officers who protect us deserve no less."

On the Senate side, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., has introduced a similar bill in the last few sessions of Congress.

"These brave men and women are the country's first line of defense against terrorism and the smuggling of illegal drugs at our borders," Mikulski said. "They have the same law enforcement training as all other law enforcement personnel, and face the same risks and challenges."

A spokeswoman in Mikulski's office said the senator plans to reintroduce her bill before the Senate leaves for its Easter recess. It's unclear if the measure has a better chance of passage this time around, the spokeswoman said.

Federal labor unions have been lobbying Congress for more than a decade to grant law enforcement status to more officers.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents many CBP employees, said it plans to push strongly for passage of the legislation this session.

"There is no dispute," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley, "that the work of CBP officers is law enforcement work."

The American Federation of Government Employees also has been a longtime supporter of the legislation, specifically on behalf of CBP employees. In addition to lobbying Congress, the union has created print and radio ads to stress the importance of the issue. AFGE last June lost an election to represent CBP workers, but is challenging the results.

Kelley said the legislation has a much better chance this session. "With new leadership in Congress that is more attuned to the federal workforce and the contributions of federal employees," Kelley said, "we believe that we are better positioned to be successful in ending this second-class status for Customs and Border Protection officers."

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