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TSP Proposes New Shutdown Loan Rules, OPM Considers Health Care Portal, and More

A weekly round-up of pay and benefits news.

Officials with the agency that administers the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program published an interim rule Tuesday that would ensure federal employees impacted by a government shutdown can take out loans on their Thrift Savings Plan accounts regardless of how long the lapse in appropriations is expected to last.

Posted in the Federal Register by the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which governs the TSP, the rule narrowly applies to federal workers who are either furloughed or forced to work without pay during a lapse in appropriations. Before this week, any employee in a “non-pay status” was eligible to take out a loan, so long as that status was expected to last less than 30 days.

As a result, there was uncertainty regarding whether employees at unfunded agencies could apply for TSP loans during the 35-day partial government shutdown, especially as it stretched into the third and fourth week. Earlier this month, TSP officials reported that they saw a 5 percent increase in the issuance of TSP loans during the lapse in appropriations, compared to a 26 percent increase in withdrawals, a more onerous process that forces participants to incur a 10 percent tax penalty and stop contributing to their accounts for six months.

In the rule filing, officials said they took great pains in order to come up with a way to implement the rule immediately.

“This interim rule applies only to participants who are furloughed or excepted from furlough (i.e., continuing to work and earn pay, but their pay is delayed until appropriations are authorized) due to a government shutdown,” the rule stated. “The FRTIB’s staff and contractors have designed manual workarounds to highly automated business processes in order to make this interim rule effective immediately so these participants will have access [to] TSP loans in the event of another government shutdown.”

Additionally, the rule allows TSP participants to request a suspension of their loan payments in the event of a shutdown to avoid the potential that they could default. And the agency is reexamining how it handles TSP loan applications from federal employees in other forms of non-pay status.

“Participants who are not receiving pay for other reasons (e.g., administrative furlough, voluntary leave of absence, seasonal work, sabbatical, disciplinary suspension) remain ineligible to request a loan,” the rule stated. “The FRTIB is considering whether to allow these participants to request loans in non-pay status and will address this subject in the final rule.”

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management is thinking about a new way to help federal workers decide which insurance plan to enroll in as part of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Meritalk reported Monday that the agency has issued a Request for Information seeking vendors to develop a “one-stop shop” portal for employees to compare and then enroll in health care plans.

Although OPM currently offers the ability to compare different FEHB plans on its website, the enrollment process and other customer service functions are largely decentralized across a multitude of agencies’ HR departments.

Among the functions OPM hopes to include in the portal are enrollment and decision-making support, enrollment processing, as well as enrollment and premium reconciliation and data collection and reporting. Responses to the request are due March 11.

On Tuesday, OPM announced that it is extending the deadline for the Combined Federal Campaign, the federal government’s annual charity giving effort, until Feb. 22.

The campaign was disrupted by the partial government shutdown, as donations are primarily made by way of payroll deductions. As a result, many payroll offices at unfunded agencies were not open to receive or process CFC pledges. Additionally, federal workers impacted by the shutdown would have been unlikely to make charity donations without knowing when they would next receive a pay check.

Although the deadline for making donations through the campaign was delayed, OPM said in a press release that money still will begin being disbursed to charities on April 1 as originally scheduled.