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

Senate Support for Tripling the Pay Raise, a Scholarship Deadline and More

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It’s official: There is now Senate-side support for giving federal employees a 5.3 percent pay raise in 2017. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced legislation last week that would give civilians a 3.9 percent boost next year, plus a 1.4 percent bump in locality pay. The figure is more than three times President Obama’s proposed 1.6 percent pay raise for federal workers in 2017.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., made good on his pledge to support that level of raise, by co-sponsoring the bill. Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are also co-sponsors; Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., introduced a companion bill in the House.

It’s unclear what will become of the efforts, since Democratic attempts to provide a more generous raise were unsuccessful last year. Connolly, Schatz and Cardin in 2015 sponsored similar legislation, which would have given federal workers a 3.8 percent raise in 2016. Instead, they received the 1.3 percent increase that Obama supported.

In another possible positive sign for federal employees, the House Ways and Means Committee’s panel on Social Security earlier this week discussed the merits of a measure that would reduce the retirement penalty for federal civil servants and other public employees who have also worked in the private sector. Federal employees and retirees hired before 1984 and covered by the Civil Service Retirement System do not pay Social Security taxes and are therefore ineligible for Social Security annuities, under the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) passed in 1983. 

Measures to drop the WEP have failed over the past two decades due largely to their high cost. But there is some optimism that the latest effort by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, will be different because the bill he introduced does not eliminate the WEP entirely, but rather changes the formula to be more generous to affected employees who have spent part of their careers in the private sector. Brady said his bill is fully paid for through a crackdown on public employees receiving overpayments from Social Security and that it would even improve the program’s solvency.

Military members looking to start families also received some good news from Capitol Hill this week. A bill introduced in the House by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill, would ensure that new dads receive 12 weeks of paid paternity leave, equal to the three months that female service members now receive for maternity leave. The bill also would give a minimum of 12 weeks’ paid leave to adoptive parents. In dual-military families, both service member parents would be able to take the 12 weeks leave under H.R. 4796.

The legislation aims to consolidate the military’s “disparate and confusing parental leave policies into a single policy that is both consistent and equitable for all parents while also helping improve military readiness and workforce competitiveness,” said a statement from Duckworth’s office.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in January that the department would provide 12 weeks of maternity leave for female service members. The Pentagon has broad discretion over determining the amount of maternity leave for female service members because giving birth is considered part of convalescent leave. Before Carter’s announcement, most female service members received six weeks of maternity leave (though the Navy received 18 weeks).

In less promising news for federal employees, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, announced late last week that he is starting an investigation into federal employees’ bonuses over the past decade. His announcement specifically mentioned the FBI, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, though the House Oversight and Government Reform chairman said he was looking at the whole government. He also will be examining various types of awards, from time off and recruitment and relocation incentives to the Presidential Rank Awards for Senior Executive Service employees.

A smaller subset of bonuses – those for Veterans Affairs Department senior executives – is under fire in the House as well. An appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday approved language banning bonuses for VA executives as part of the fiscal 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations measure. This is the first time such language has been included in the base MilCon-VA bill, which is now headed to the full appropriations panel. An amendment banning bonuses for all VA senior executives was successfully added to the fiscal 2016 MilCon-VA legislation, but did not make it into the eventual omnibus spending package Congress had to pass at the end of last year to avoid a government shutdown. 

Finally, the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund issued a reminder that the deadline for its 2016-2017 scholarships is this Friday, March 25. Current civilian federal employees and their dependents are eligible for the program, providing they have at least three years of service as of Aug. 31, 2016. The scholarships are merit-based and range from $500 to $2,500. Roughly 400 students from 27 regions will win some type of award, and the top two in each region will be eligible for additional awards. For more information about eligibility and how to apply for a scholarship, click here.

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