Sick leave can accumulate quickly as unused days from the 13 granted annually to federal employees carry over year after year. For employees under the older Civil Service Retirement System, leftover sick days are credited toward retirement pensions. But Federal Employee Retirement System workers have no such luck.
This discrepancy is causing FERS employees to use substantially more sick leave than their CSRS counterparts, the Congressional Research Service reported in 2004. One possible interpretation is that FERS employees calling in sick may not truly have the sniffles.
Now, a coalition of federal management groups is coalescing around the issue. The newly formed Government Managers Coalition -- made up of the Federal Aviation Administration Managers Association, Federal Managers Association, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, Professional Managers Association and Senior Executives Association -- is pushing compensation for FERS employees' unused sick days as one of its first agenda items.
"We really see this as a management issue of finding a creative way to encourage employees to be more results-oriented while maintaining their health," said Thomas Richards, government affairs representative for the FMA.
Granting extra pension money for unused sick leave is expensive, and coalition leaders said they understand that the introduction of FERS in 1986 tried to trim the cost of federal employment entitlements and loosen the so-called "golden handcuffs," which forced workers to stay in the civil service or lose valuable benefits.
As an answer, the coalition is looking at a New York state public employees program that puts funds calculated from unused sick leave into an account to help pay health insurance premiums in retirement years.
"With the rising costs of health care and the fact that retirees don't see the same tax benefits on their premiums that active employees do," Richards said, "this is one way of alleviating some of the stress of health care benefits that many retirees face."
Leaders of the coalition, which just announced its formation Monday, said they are intrigued by the New York solution, but are not wedded to it.
"We're not necessarily saying it has got to be this solution but here is a creative solution that has been tried and something needs to be done," said William Bransford, general counsel for SEA. "It's just going to get worse as more and more [FERS] employees near retirement."
Bransford said the group will be lobbying members of Congress and the subcommittees that oversee federal workforce issues to take action on FERS sick leave policy.
"The difficulty is going to be convincing the members of Congress that whatever cost is associated with the reform is going to be made up in increased productivity," Bransford said.
Perhaps the associations will have more sway under the umbrella of the coalition. The group also is advocating extended probationary periods for most new federal employees and more training for supervisors.
"By uniting, we can be sure that these solutions, which can and will make a big difference, receive the attention they deserve on the Hill and in the White House," said Darryl Perkinson, president of FMA.