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

Still Pushing

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With only 18 months left in the Bush administration, the president's federal personnel chief is clamoring to make some key changes before time is up. Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer is focusing on short-term disability benefits and electronic retirement records, among other improvements.

In an interview this week with Government Executive President Timothy B. Clark, Springer laid out her priorities.

A short-term disability benefit, which would include paid maternity leave, is something of a change in policy for OPM. In 2001, the office issued a report arguing that agencies don't need to offer paid leave to federal employees when they have a baby or adopt a child.

Doris Hausser, who at the time was acting associate director for workforce compensation and performance at OPM, said, "The federal government's leave policies and programs compare favorably with benefits offered by most private sector companies…. a paid parental leave benefit would not be a major factor in enhancing [agencies'] recruitment and retention strategies."

But Springer said this week that short-term disability is "probably the one big hole we have right now. That's actually a recruiting problem. Women of childbearing age would prefer to go to a company with a maternity benefit than one without it."

The plan is still in its infancy; OPM is working with other agencies to hammer out specifics before proposing the new benefit to Congress. But OPM definitely is "trying to find a way to offer short-term disability benefits, to include maternity," Springer said.

Right now, federal employees must use a combination of paid annual leave, paid sick leave and unpaid leave when they take time off to care for newborns. Short-term disability also would cover injuries or illnesses that require federal employees to take time off for a few months.

Springer hinted that the new benefit might be an insurance offering, similar to the other new benefit that federal employees received recently -- dental and vision insurance -- in that there would be no employer subsidy. That formula would make the plan easy to swallow for budget-minded legislators. It would also make it less of a benefit for federal employees. But Springer's not sure yet.

"The one thing we know is we need it, and with our buying power we ought to get a good rate," she said.

An electronic retirement system, on the other hand, is much farther along. Already, OPM has signed contracts to buy ready-made electronic retirement processing systems. Work is under way to scan thousands of pages of records into the system.

In February 2008, the first 25,000 federal employees will be able to view their personnel records online. Springer hopes that by the following February, the entire civilian workforce will be in the new system. That depends on continued congressional support, though.

To that end, last week Springer brought a congressional delegation to a mine in Boyers, Pa., an hour north of Pittsburgh, to see the 150,000 file drawers full of federal employees' paper records. About 8,000 are scanned each day.

"At this stage in the administration, the safe ground to be on to continue to be effective is to focus on the employees," Springer said.

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