Feds need more respect, better benefits, says congressman

Strong leadership, workplace flexibilities and respect for employees are key to improving morale and performance at federal agencies, a freshman Democratic lawmaker told members of the National Treasury Employees Union on Thursday.

"The right kind of leadership on all levels can turn [federal agencies] around pretty quick," said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., during the closing session of the union's legislative conference. Sarbanes, who has spent much of his first term working on federal employee issues, is the son of former Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland. "As much as it's a disservice not to support the federal workforce; at the end of the day, it's a disservice to the public."

Sarbanes is a co-sponsor of the Telework Improvement Act, which would expand telework opportunities for federal employees. That bill passed the House Oversight and Government Reform Workforce Subcommittee on a 3-0 vote on Feb. 29. Sarbanes also authored a provision of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act that reduces monthly payments and provides loan forgiveness for students who perform 10 years of public service work.

Sarbanes said his first term in Congress has been informative, teaching him to trust front-line employees more than the Bush administration, which he criticized.

"One of the things that you come away with, you start to form an impression," Sarbanes said. "Having sat through the testimony of the folks at the front lines and unpersuasive testimony of people at the highest levels, it's like there's been an orchestrated attack on federal employees."

He joked that it was almost as if there was "a handbook saying 'how do you undermine the reputation of good government?' I have no hard evidence that such a book exists, but I have circumstantial evidence."

Sarbanes set a reformist tone, which NTEU President Colleen Kelley echoed in her remarks about a bill Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., chairman of the Federal Workforce Subcommittee, introduced on Thursday that would raise the age from 22 to 25 for dependents covered under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

"[The Office of Personnel Management] opposes [the legislation]," Kelley said. "That's OK. They've opposed a lot of things we've made happen, and supported a lot of things we've crushed."

Kelley made it clear that NTEU planned an aggressive legislative and political campaign throughout the year. She announced the union's political engagement awards for its People Organized to Win Employee Rights campaign, commending Internal Revenue Service locals in Akron, Ohio; Central Florida, St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis, Mo.; the Customs and Border Protection local in El Paso, Texas; and the Transportation Security Administration local in Atlanta.

NTEU and other federal employee groups hope that Congress's preoccupation with more politically sensitive issues this election year will make legislation addressing workforce concerns easier to pass.

Sarbanes said that federal employee issues set the standard for private industry.

"I regard unions and an organized workforce as one of the best sources of creative thinking that there is when it comes to improving the productivity and competitiveness of the American workforce," he said. "You are the forefront. You're starting to model the things that will be at the center of the health care debate and at the center of improving conditions for the American workforce."

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