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

Wage Scale Change, Vets’ Preference Expansion, No-Interest Loans and More

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The Office of Personnel Management wants to redefine the geographic boundaries for the New York and Philadelphia wage areas. The move would put the entire Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, located in central New Jersey, in the New York metropolitan area. Currently, portions of the military installation formerly known as Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base are included in the Philadelphia wage area. The portion of the joint base formerly known as Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst is defined to the New York wage area. The change would put the entire installation into a single wage area.

“This change is based on a majority recommendation of the Federal Prevailing Rate Advisory Committee, the national labor-management committee responsible for advising OPM on the administration of the [federal wage schedule],” OPM said. It planned to publish the proposed rule with the new definitions in the Federal Register on Wednesday.

How effective are your agency’s health and wellness programs? OPM is offering a free online assessment, WellCheck, to help agencies assess whether the workforce is actually benefitting.

According to OPM: 

WC measures 131 evidence-based workplace strategies that impact health and wellness. In 2014, 291 worksites, from 36 different Federal agencies, participated in the WC assessment. On average, agencies scored the highest in addressing vaccine-preventable diseases, occupational health and safety, and tobacco-free living. Agencies had the most room for improvement in the areas of nutrition, lactation support, and organizational supports. More details are available in the2014 WellCheck Results Memorandum

Paid administrative leave continues to draw lawmakers’ scrutiny. Last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley sent a letter to Homeland Security Department Inspector General John Roth demanding more information about OIG employees on paid leave. As Grassley noted:

As of February 2016, according to data provided by DHS, OIG had nine employees on administrative leave for more than one year since fiscal year 2014. The cost to the agency for this almost 42,000 hours of leave was more than $2.1 million. Two of these employees have been on administrative leave for more than 7,000 hours, which is approximately three-and-a-half years. This is both an unacceptable waste of taxpayers’ dollars and unfair to these employees whose careers have been left in limbo without any recourse.

Grassley said the problem points to the need for the Administrative Leave Act of 2016, bipartisan legislation he introduced and which the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved by unanimous voice vote. The bill was also introduced, and unanimously approved, as an amendment to the DHS Accountability Act of 2016. It would beef up internal controls to address administrative leave across the department.

You may remember that last year, President Obama signed the Gold Star Fathers Act of 2015, which expanded veterans’ preference eligibility from the mother of a deceased or disabled veteran who is unable to use his or her preference, to the parent of that service member. The law went into effect in January and last week, OPM issued new guidance for agencies in implementing the new policy. expanding preference eligibility from the ‘mother’ of a deceased or disabled veteran who is unable to use his or her preference, to the ‘parent’ of that service member.  

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There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the extent to which military families depend on food stamps to get by. Congress directed the Government Accountability Office to do an analysis of how many service members use various food assistance programs. Perhaps not surprisingly, the data is unclear, GAO found.

GAO identified 18 government programs that provide food assistance to low-income households. Qualified service members may receive benefits from any of them, but their eligibility can vary by program and location. For example, GAO found that it might be easier for troops to qualify for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) than Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because WIC allows state agencies to exclude portions of a service member's pay when determining eligibility and SNAP does not.

While the Defense Department has some data on service members' use of food assistance programs it administers, it is limited. That’s because the Pentagon doesn’t fully collect and analyze department data, and it doesn’t coordinate with the Agriculture Department (which administers SNAP) to access their data on service members' use of their programs, the report found.

According to the Defense Commissary Agency, active duty military personnel spent more than $21 million in food-assistance benefits at commissaries from September 2014 through August 2015. “This suggests that people serving our country may be having difficulty making ends meet,” the Government Accountability Office found in a recent report. 

Feds should keep in mind that FSAFEDS will experience a blackout period in August as the flexible spending account program transitions to a new administrator (while deductions will continue, employees won’t have access to their funds during the blackout). Employees who need financial assistance during that time will be able to receive no-interest loans from the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund, according to the National Treasury Employees Union.

NTEU asked the charity if it could provide loans during the August blackout to any federal employees stretched thin financially by the wait for FSA claims to be paid.

“Many NTEU members have recurring costs, such as child care, and rely on the FSAFEDS reimbursement to meet their financial obligations in a timely manner,” said NTEU National President Tony Reardon. “It will unquestionably create a substantial hardship on employees using FSAs for recurring dependent care payments who will face not being reimbursed for multiple weeks.”

FEEA complied with NTEU’s request: “We will make no-interest loans to employees who cannot meet the basic needs of their families because of the delay in reimbursement,” wrote FEEA Executive Director Steven Bauer. Employees can repay the loans once FSAFEDS reimburses them.

To apply for a loan, employees must fill out the emergency assistance application at www.FEEA.org. Click on the “Get Help Now” button on the home page to access the application.

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