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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Knowing the score

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Lawmakers and agency officials have spent the past several months debating how best to reform the civil service system so that agencies can more easily recruit, retain and reward employees.

But agencies already have one new recruitment tool granted to them in the law creating the Homeland Security Department: categorical ranking.

Under categorical ranking, applicants are divided into groups-"most qualified," "qualified" and "unqualified" -based on predetermined criteria. Managers then pick employees from the "most qualified" group. The new hiring tool would give agencies an alternative to the "rule of three" hiring method. Under the "rule of three," numerical scores are assigned to candidates based on certain criteria, and managers hire from among the three highest-scoring candidates, a method the Merit Systems Protection Board has described as counterproductive and limiting.

While new as a governmentwide tool, categorical ranking is not new to the federal workplace. The Agriculture Department's Forest Service has used categorical grouping successfully under a demonstration project that was made permanent in 1998, according to the MSPB. The Internal Revenue Service has also used categorical ranking to hire revenue agents.

Veterans groups have raised concerns about categorical ranking, saying that managers could use it to get around veterans' preference in hiring. Veterans' preference regulations reward people for serving in the military. Veteran applicants for federal jobs are given additional points under the "rule of three" system, which helps boost their scores. But studies have found that more veterans are hired under categorical ranking than under the "rule of three."

Helping Hand

Nearly 100 federal agencies stepped up and answered a call by Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James to extend a helping hand to federal employees called to active duty.

"Our first obligation as an employer is to make certain that those who perform active military duty are able to leave their employment temporarily with the knowledge that their affairs are in order and their rights protected," James wrote in a memo to agency heads earlier this year.

James asked agency officials to consider paying both the employee's and the agency's portion of health benefit premiums for federal employees called to active duty for more than 20 days. More than 120,000 federal employees serve in the National Guard and Reserves, and nearly 14,000 of them were called to active duty to help fight the war in Iraq.

On Tuesday, James thanked those agencies that decided to extend this benefit to their employees.

 
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