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

A TSP Call Center Spike, Shutdown Back Pay and More

Last week, the Office of Personnel Management confirmed in a memo that any federal employee who was furloughed as the result of the hours-long government shutdown earlier this month will receive back pay.

Although Congress early on Feb. 9 approved a bill to fund the government until March 23 and to raise overall spending caps outlined in the 2011 Budget Control Act, the fact that lawmakers missed the Feb. 8 deadline meant that many feds spent at least a portion of their work day waiting on the government to officially reopen, said acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan.

OPM instructed agencies to use flexibility when considering employees’ pay and leave status and encouraged them to use “excused absence” status when appropriate. The agency’s instructions also indicated that a pay freeze on top political appointees and officials, in place since fiscal 2013, would remain in effect until the end of the current continuing resolution.

Participants in the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement program apparently were especially eager to discuss their investments with officials Tuesday, as the Thrift Savings Plan sent out a notification informing people that call center volume was higher than usual.

But the flood of calls was...

Workforce Plan Stresses Pay for Performance, OPM Nominee Advances, and More

The Office of Personnel Management joined President Trump’s call for pay-for-performance in the federal civil service when it released its five-year strategic plan last week.

The quadrennial Federal Workforce Priorities Report listed a number of priorities for agencies in the realm of workforce management, particularly succession planning, improved technology, and better employee development and recognition of top performers. It also stressed enhancing productivity by encouraging physical activity among employees to improve their health. 

The report said OPM plans to introduce programs that “appropriately recognize and reward employees who demonstrate high levels of performance,” specifically citing the White House’s agency reorganization plans and management agenda, which is slated to be released next month, as avenues to achieve better retention of high-performing feds.

“Employee recognition programs encourage sustained excellence and productivity and help retain top talent, which becomes increasingly important as the workforce is streamlined,” OPM wrote. “Recognizing high performers is highlighted in both the Office of Management and Budget’s agency reform memo and OPM’s workforce reshaping guidance. It is a proactive and accountability-based practice that can help avoid performance problems and conduct issues.

OPM also suggested a number of specific ways agencies could encourage workers to stay...

New Recruitment Incentives, Agriculture Telework Policy Delayed, and More

The Office of Personnel Management announced updates last week to how agencies can offer recruitment and retention incentives to federal employees and candidates for government jobs.

Agencies currently have the authority to offer recruitment, relocation and retention incentives to current or prospective federal workers up to 25 percent of the position’s annual rate of base pay or up to 100 percent of one year of base pay spread over four years without preapproval from OPM. Additionally, agencies can offer incentives up to 10 percent of annual base pay for groups of critical employees without OPM approval.

But in order to meet a “critical agency need,” departments can request waivers to these incentive limits. In an effort to simplify and expedite the approval process, OPM officials have updated templates for agency waiver requests, and posted the forms on its website.

“The fillable templates are intended to help agencies include all of the required information and facilitate the request and approval process,” wrote Mark Reinhold, OPM’s associate director for employee services.

Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department has reportedly delayed enforcement of a policy announced last month that would significantly curb employees’ ability to telework.

Last month, the agency rolled back an...

Reducing Costs at FEHBP, Civil Service Reform and More

The Office of Personnel Management is encouraging insurers to find ways to reduce costs for plans in the health care program for federal employees.

In its annual letter to Federal Employees Health Benefits Program carriers on Jan. 23, OPM suggested a number of ways that insurers could change their offerings, or provide new types of plans.

“The Office of Personnel Management has developed an agency strategic objective to improve the quality of health care received by enrollees in FEHB plans, increase the affordability of FEHB plans, and enhance the portfolio of available FEHB plans to increase the proportion that offer high quality at an affordable cost,” wrote Alan Spielman, OPM’s director of health care and insurance. “[Effective] plan design is key to providing high-quality, cost-effective health care.”

Among the ideas OPM floated were adjusting cost-sharing for high-value and low-value benefits “to help ensure members are getting the most value,” implementing tiered provider networks including options with reduced cost sharing, and reducing cost sharing when members act to manage chronic conditions or obtain higher-quality care through “creative provider or vender partnerships.”

OPM also suggested insurers employ online portals and other communication tools to improve enrollee engagement and support with decision-making...

Back Pay for Contractors, First Blended Retirement Enrollment Numbers, and More

Although the government shutdown is over and Congress has approved back pay for federal employees who were furloughed between Saturday and Monday, one Democratic lawmaker is pushing for a similar measure for contractors.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., a non-voting member of the House, introduced the Low-Wage Federal Contractor Employee Back Pay Act (H.R. 4875) Monday, which would compensate contractors who provide retail, food, custodial or security services to federal agencies for time spent on unpaid leave due to the shutdown.

Norton said in a letter to colleagues to solicit cosponsors that shutdowns of any length can be particularly difficult for federal contractors, who often are paid less and receive fewer benefits than people on the federal payroll.

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“Many federal contract workers earn little more than minimum wage and receive few, if any, benefits,” she wrote. “While some are unionized with a little better wage, all are the lowest-paid workers in the federal government and should not be punished because Congress has failed to do its job to keep the government funded.”

If enacted, the bill would ensure compensation for federal contractors in...