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Lawmakers Advance Bills Regarding Official Time, TSP, VA Bonuses

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A Senate panel advanced legislation Wednesday requiring the Office of Personnel Management to submit an annual report to Congress on the use of official time by federal employees.

The bill (H.R.1293), approved by the House in May, requires OPM to detail the total amount of official time granted to employees, the average amount of official time used per employee, as well as the types of activities for which official time was granted.

Official time is the practice where federal employee union representatives are paid to conduct activities related to their representational duties—things like establishing workforce rules and supporting employees facing disciplinary action—rather than their normal job function. The bill approved by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee this week is one of a number of proposals from Republicans targeting the practice.

Although the bill was recommended favorably to the Senate floor by a voice vote, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said she wanted to formalize her vote in opposition, arguing that the bill seeks to “chip away” at a valuable practice for improving working conditions at agencies as well as promoting greater productivity.

“I saw that first hand at a naval shipyard when I was governor of New Hampshire,” she said. “Labor representatives, through their use of official time, brought creative thoughts from the men and women on the front lines of repairing nuclear submarines to improve processes. We regularly were under budget and ahead of schedules and we trained others in it, and that was a direct result of a good labor-management relationship and the practice of official time.”

The committee also voted unanimously to send the TSP Modernization Act (S.873) to the full Senate. The legislation gives enrollees in the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program greater flexibility in how and when they can withdraw money from their accounts.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Tom Carper, D-Del., would allow federal employees to make multiple age-based withdrawals from their Thrift Savings Plan accounts and still remain eligible for partial withdrawals once they leave government. It also would allow those receiving monthly payments to change the amount and frequency of payments at any time, instead of only once per year.

The House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee voted last week to advance a companion bill (H.R.3031) to the floor. Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, thanked lawmakers in both chambers for their efforts on this issue.

“The rules for how federal employees can manage their accounts have not kept pace with the modern workforce, and these changes would make the TSP a more attractive and user-friendly choice for employees and retirees,” Reardon said in a statement. “Our members have been asking for these changes and we applaud these senators and House members for listening to their concerns.”

And on Monday, the House approved legislation requiring the Veterans Affairs Department to produce an annual report on bonuses paid to high-level executives at the agency.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Bonus Transparency Act (H.R.1690) requires the agency to include a list of every award or bonus issued to the directors of regional offices, VA medical centers and veterans integrated service networks, as well as any other employee in a senior executive position. The VA must also include the amount of each award, the recipient’s job title and their location.

The Senate passed a similar bill (S.114) in May, but the measure failed to receive the supermajority needed to pass by a voice vote in the House Monday. The House legislation has been sent to the other chamber, where it was referred to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify the definition of official time. Union representatives are prohibited from conducting union-specific business, such as soliciting members or engaging in political activities, on official time.

Erich Wagner is a staff correspondent covering pay, benefits and other federal workforce issues. He joined Government Executive in the spring of 2017 after extensive experience writing about state and local issues in Maryland and Virginia, most recently as editor-in-chief of the Alexandria Times. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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