Lawmakers urge uniform pay policies for deployed civilians

Lack of standard guidance makes it difficult for agencies to treat overseas employees equally.

The lack of a governmentwide policy on pay levels, medical treatment and post-deployment health screenings for civilian employees sent to combat zones is creating disparities among workers, lawmakers charged on Wednesday.

"Addressing pay inconsistencies, leave flexibilities, and holes in post-deployment medical care and workers' compensation policies are key to guaranteeing an abundant and dedicated workforce and in ensuring justice for these brave women and men," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., during a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee.

Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management for the Government Accountability Office, said the disparities stem partly from the patchwork of pay systems for civilian employees. For example, a nonsupervisory employee at Grade 12, Step 1 of the General Schedule system would be paid 1.14 times her hourly rate for overtime during a deployment, Farrell said, while a comparable Defense Department employee covered by the National Security Personnel System would be paid 1.5 times her hourly rate.

Farrell also said agencies sometimes classify civilian employees differently, depending on the duration of their deployment. Workers on assignments deemed "temporary" continue to receive their base salaries and the locality pay they would get if they were working at home, while employees on longer assignments might receive location-specific allowances rather than locality pay.

Marilee Fitzgerald, acting undersecretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy, said Defense employees assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan receive two adjustments to their salaries: a 35 percent danger pay adjustment, and another payment equivalent to 35 percent of salary to account for their overseas posting.

According to Farrell, as many as 40 percent of the civilian employees sent overseas between Jan. 1, 2006, and April 30, 2008, might not have received the pay adjustments to which they were entitled on time or at all, "because they were unaware of their eligibility or did not know where to go for assistance to start and stop these deployment-related pays." She added, "Officials at four agencies acknowledged that they have experienced difficulties in effectively administering deployment-related pays, in part because there is no single source delineating the various pays associated with deployment."

Agencies also have differing policies on whether they require their employees to undergo medical and mental health screenings after overseas deployments. The Defense and State departments require employees to be screened, and the Pentagon has given civilian employees who are injured or become ill in the line of duty while working overseas access to military medical facilities at no cost. Farrell said while Defense provides similar treatment to civilians from other agencies under "compelling circumstances," the definition of compelling is not clear, and not all agencies are aware that their employees might be eligible for treatment, especially for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Connolly pushed Jerome Mikowicz, the Office of Personnel Management's deputy associate director for pay and leave administration, to explain why OPM did not agree to head an interagency task force on benefits for civilians assigned overseas. The House Armed Services Committee in 2008 asked OPM to create a governmentwide set of benefits for overseas civilians, but Farrell said the interagency working group established after that request had not submitted legislative proposals to Congress. Defense officials who were interviewed as part of GAO's investigation said the working group's proposals were not sufficiently comprehensive.

Mikowicz said because Defense spending bills often served as vehicles for changes to pay and benefits policy for deployed civilians, OPM had determined that it was more appropriate to work collaboratively with other agencies than to direct their work. Fitzgerald praised OPM's efforts with the interagency working group, saying the agency had been "full partners, full leaders."

But lawmakers emphasized the importance of a consistent and coherent governmentwide policy.

"We are responsible for them not just when they're in this country, but when they're abroad," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. "We have got to make it attractive to go abroad."

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