Bill would boost federal pay for language skills

New legislation to increase pay for federal jobs requiring foreign language skills could help make up for the loss of a long-running financial incentive at the Customs and Border Protection bureau.

In early March, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., introduced the One America, Many Voices Act (H.R. 4832), which would increase federal employees' base pay by 5 percent if their job requires them to use a language other than English to perform their duties. Honda cited two factors when he introduced the bill: the fact that the last census discovered that almost 55 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, and the lack of a uniform standard for language skills' compensation across federal agencies.

The legislation also could compensate for the cancellation of a program that financially rewards federal employees with foreign language skills.

In February, Customs and Border Protection cancelled its Foreign Language Award Program, which has existed since 1997. The program gave CBP employees who demonstrated a proficiency in a foreign language on a test the opportunity to earn up to 5 percent of their pay in awards if they used that skill at least 10 percent of the time on the job. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP employees, said the most recent estimate was that 8,000 CBP employees currently are receiving payments under the program.

Spokeswoman Tara Dunlop said CBP's fiscal 2011 budget request "does not include enough funding to pay bilingual employees another 5 percent." But Kelley said funding for the language awards traditionally has come through visitor user fees paid to the agency rather than appropriated funds.

Dunlop did not specifically address whether Honda's bill would allow CBP to either restart the foreign language awards program or replace it. But she said language skills are increasingly important to the agency.

"This not only helps CBP attract and retain the most qualified employees, it enhances our ability to better meet the needs of the diverse public we serve and protect," she said.

But Kelley said it was unwise to eliminate the incentive program without consulting the union or considering the effect on employees. She said she was consulting with CBP officials to see whether the program could be restored, and considering other ways to appropriately compensate employees for using valuable language abilities.

"Language skills could justify an additional grade from a classification perspective. There are annual awards that can be given," Kelley said. "I don't think there's one right way."

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