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Union: Repeal Cuts to Pentagon Travel Per Diems

House and Senate bills are at odds over scrapping policy that would lower lodging and meal rates for long-term government travelers at Defense.

A federal employee union is urging senators to include language in the Defense authorization bill that would repeal cuts to per diems for service members and Defense civilian employees on long-term government travel.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers delivered 1,207 letters from its members to Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on Thursday asking her to ensure that House language scrapping a November 2014 Pentagon policy makes it into the final version of the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill. The policy resulted in lower reimbursement rates for lodging, meals and other expenses for service members and civilian employees on long-term TDY (temporary duty).

Hirono is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; workers at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific in Hawaii, and Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency are among her constituents. Congressional conferees still are working on hammering out differences between the House and Senate Defense authorization bills.

The current language in the Senate version does not repeal the policy but rather says Defense should “monitor closely the effect of this new policy to avoid unintended disincentives and ensure that that who volunteer for mission essential travel are fully supported and encouraged,” according to the report from the Senate Armed Services Committee. The House version calls for a complete repeal of the cuts.

“If savings are to be achieved through the travel budget, they should not come at the expense of the people who do the work and travel regularly and travel for extended periods of time,” said the letter to Hirono. “We are not attending conferences and receptions. Instead, we are doing complex and challenging work necessary to ensure that the men and women of the United States armed forces have everything they need to keep our nation safe.”

The policy, which took effect on Nov. 1, 2014, reduced the reimbursement rates by 25 percent for long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days, and by 45 percent for travel exceeding 180 days. So for long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days, the reimbursement rate was up to 75 percent of the locality rate (lodging plus meals and incidentals) for each full day during long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days; for travel lasting more than 180 days, it fell to 55 percent of the locality rate for each full day under the November 2014 policy.

Hirono told Government Executive that she believes “we have a commitment to ensure” that service members and Defense civilians on extended travel “can take temporary duty assignments without worrying about financial hardship.” But she stopped short of saying she would push to reverse the cuts as the House bill does. “I will work to reconcile this important issue as one of the Senate’s NDAA conferees,” she said.

Congress and the Obama administration have told agencies they need to cut travel costs. Still, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as several unions, believe the Pentagon’s changes have eroded morale and caused an undue burden on government travelers. The new policy is simply unrealistic, given the increased rates of rental housing and many hotels, they have argued. 

The Pentagon has estimated that lower per diem rates for long-term TDY will save $22 million per year. Defense has noted that the commercial lodging industry considers stays over 30 days “extended” and “typically offers reduced rates to ensure occupancy.” The department also advised Defense travelers to consider staying in furnished apartments or similar types of lodging “which are typically cheaper than room rates in commercial lodging.”

IFPTE plans to send similar letters to Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; and Angus King, I-Maine. All three also sit on the Armed Services Committee and have naval shipyards in their states employing many IFPTE members.

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