Federal telework, hiring bills advance

By Alex M. Parker

May 20, 2009

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for agencies to rehire federal retirees.

The legislation (S. 629) would allow agencies to waive requirements that federal retirees take a pay cut equal to their annuity if they returned to government on a limited part-time basis.

"This bill would strengthen the government's ability to serve the public at a time when the federal government is facing a wave of retirements," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a sponsor of the legislation.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, abstained from the panel vote because of concerns from federal employee unions that the bill could result in managers waiving civil service requirements, including veterans' preference and merit hiring.

According to the legislation, federal retirees could take advantage of this flexibility for only 1,040 hours within a 12-month period, or 3,120 hours during the rest of their lifetime.

But the American Federation of Government Employees said those safeguards were not enough to protect current full-time employees.

"If enacted, S. 629 would simultaneously violate veterans' preference, deny career development opportunities for federal workers, and institute a noncompetitive hiring system open to corruptions and abuse," wrote Beth Moten, AFGE's legislative director, in a May 19 letter to committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. "At the same time, it fails utterly to address the legitimate and valid hiring issues facing the federal government."

The committee also approved S. 469, which would revise Civil Service Retirement System provisions for those who retire as part-time workers. The system would be changed so their annuity payments would be calculated based on the salary they would have received as full-time workers. Supporters said it corrected a fluke in the retirement law that discouraged people from working part time, and would put it on par with the Federal Employee Retirement System.

"We're really just trying to even the playing field between one group of employees and another," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a sponsor of the bill. Both the National Treasury Employees Union and the Office of Personnel Management supported the measure.

Also on Wednesday, the committee unanimously passed a bill requiring agencies to create and submit plans for expanding telework benefits to the Office of Personnel Management.

The committee added an amendment from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would give the Patent and Trademark Office the ability to pay travel expenses to and from a PTO telework office for employees participating in the agency's telework program, which requires an examiner to work on-site one day each week.

That amendment also is included in the patent reform bill currently in the Senate.

NTEU praised the telework bill.

"As the recent outbreak of swine flu has demonstrated, telework is an important tool for ensuring the continuity of government services in the event of a national emergency," NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said. "Not only does telework help maintain critical government functions, it also boosts morale and productivity among employees and reduces commute times and traffic congestion."

In other business, the panel unanimously approved S. 599, which would presume the death or disability of a federal firefighter from certain medical causes was job-related. Supporters of the bill said it mirrored legislation passed for firefighters in more than 40 states. The committee also supported S. 942, which would beef up oversight of government charge cards, after reports of abuse from federal employees.

By Alex M. Parker

May 20, 2009