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

Holi-daze

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The payroll tax holiday extension isn't the only holiday currently up in the air.

As feds near the end of a very long year that has included everything from federal pay freezes to multiple near-government shutdowns, several critical questions remain, including: Will President Obama grant government employees early dismissal for Christmas?

While the administration has not made an official announcement on the matter, there's reason to hope Obama will give feds some extra time off to take the sting out of the ongoing pay freeze and whatever else could be coming down the pike as far as reduced compensation.

Christmas falls on a Sunday, making Dec. 24 a Saturday. Traditionally, presidents grant employees an extra day of vacation when Christmas falls on Tuesday or Thursday. In 2011 however, the last business day before Christmas is Friday, Dec. 23. Monday, Dec. 26 is a federal holiday. So feds already are guaranteed a three-day weekend.

In 2009, President Obama ordered all federal agencies close for the last half of the workday on Thursday, Dec. 24, to give employees a jump on the Christmas holiday. In 2008 when Christmas fell on a Thursday, President Bush ordered executive branch agencies to close the next day, Friday, Dec. 26, giving most federal employees a four-day weekend over the holiday.

In Transit

Time is running out for Congress to act on legislation that would extend mass transit benefits to commuters.

Federal employees' current mass transit benefit of $230 a month -- equal to the benefit for parking -- will drop to $125 a month beginning in 2012. The law that sets the amount of pretax earnings that workers can set aside for travel to and from work also determines the commuter subsidy for federal employees.

Fifty representatives signed a letter to House leadership last week that focused on the financial savings that extending the larger benefit would offer workers -- in the form of a tax break for private sector employees who do not receive money for commuting from their employer.

The bill still is in committee. With everything else going on and the Christmas holiday approaching, the legislation's prospects look bleak. Then again, anything's possible with this Congress.

In other transit-related news, the National Treasury Employees Union is calling on the General Services Administration to raise the mileage reimbursement rate for federal workers who use their private vehicles to do their jobs. Earlier this year, GSA declined to increase the rate to 55.5 cents per mile -- the rate the Internal Revenue Service set in June -- because of high gas prices. The IRS said the reimbursement rate of 55.5 cents would remain in place as of January 2012. But GSA thus far has declined to follow the IRS' lead, keeping rates at 51 cents.

"I would remind you that federal employees are suffering under a pay freeze, making substandard reimbursement for the expenses they incur performing government work all the more burdensome," NTEU President Colleen Kelley wrote in a letter to GSA Administrator Martha Johnson.

 

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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