Graduation Day

A bill that increases the amount of money agencies can spend repaying employees' student loans gets a passing grade.

A bill that would increase the amount agencies can spend repaying a federal employee's student loans is on its way to the White House for the president's signature.

On Tuesday, House legislators passed the Federal Employee Student Loan Assistance Act (S. 926), a bill introduced in late April by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, that would let agencies pay up to $10,000 a year in student loan payments for an employee, and as much as $60,000 total for an employee. Currently, agencies can pay up to $6,000 a year in student loan payments for each employee, but the total amount per employee cannot exceed $40,000. Employees who participate in the student loan forgiveness program must work for the agency for at least three years, and must repay the money if they are fired or quit before that time.

"All of us are surely aware of how expensive a college or graduate-level education can be. It is the prospect of these daunting student loans-$50,000, $75,000 or even more than $100,000-that can prevent public-service minded people from coming to work for the government," Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., said Tuesday on the House floor. "They simply can't afford it."

According to the Partnership for Public Service, the average cumulative amount borrowed for undergraduate education in the 1999 academic year was $19,785, and the average cumulative amount borrowed for graduate education was $36,976.

"We must find ways to encourage government service," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said. "Ensuring that student loan debt is not an impediment to the federal government being an employer of choice is an important step."

House lawmakers introduced another bill in March, the Generating Opportunity by Forgiving Educational Debt for Service or GOFEDS bill, which would eliminate the tax burden federal employees inherit when an agency repays their school loan debt. Currently, employees must pay income tax on the money federal agencies have provided them to repay their student loans.

Legislators hope the two bills will remove barriers they say deter people from choosing the federal government as an employer.

For more information about the student loan repayment benefit, employees should check their agency's Web site, talk with their human resources personnel or visit OPM's Web site.

Flexible Spending Accounts

Employees enrolled in the Flexible Spending Account (FSA) program will be able to use the benefit to pay for nonprescription medicines as of Jan. 1, 2004, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Employees can use the accounts to set aside pretax dollars for health, child and elder care. Up to $3,000 can be socked away in health care accounts to cover certain expenses not covered by traditional health insurance, such as co-payments, deductibles, laser eye surgery and dental work. Employees can set aside as much as $5,000 in dependent care accounts for child care and elder care costs.

"This will save money for millions of consumers-including federal employees-who rely on a regular supply of decongestants, antihistamines and other frequently used medicines," OPM Director Kay Coles James said.

Federal employees who missed the first enrollment period can sign up for the accounts during the next open season, which runs Nov. 10 through Dec. 8.

For more information about the FSA program, click here:

Fire Assistance

On Monday, the Office of Personnel Management instructed department and agency officials to allow federal employees affected by wildfires in California to be excused from work without having to use leave time or take a loss in pay. The request also applies to federal workers assisting with clean-up efforts. Limits on biweekly premium pay could be waived for employees involved in cleanup efforts, OPM Director Kay Coles James said.

Agencies interested in setting up emergency leave transfer programs through which employees can donate unused leave to help colleagues affected by the wildfires should contact their agency's chief human capital officer, James advised. Survivors can use the donated leave when their agency-allotted free time runs out.

The Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund (FEEA), a charity that helps federal workers and their families in need, also announced the creation of the 2003 Southern California Federal Employee Fire Fund.

To apply for assistance, employees should go to FEEA's Web site or contact FEEA at 800-323-4140 or 303-933-7580 for information.

Donations to the fund can be made by credit card on FEEA's Web site or checks can be sent to:

FEEA 2003 Southern California Federal Employee Fire Fund
8441 W. Bowles Avenue
Suite 200
Littleton, Colo. 80123-9501