One Defense policy bill provision improves the reimbursement for federal workers who are required to relocate for work.

One Defense policy bill provision improves the reimbursement for federal workers who are required to relocate for work. By Jana Shea / Shutterstock.com

House Backs New Benefits for Feds, OPM Offers Heat Guidance and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

When the House passed its version of the annual Defense policy bill last week, lawmakers approved a number of provisions impacting federal employee benefits, including paid parental leave.

The National Defense Authorization Act advanced out of the House by a 220-197 vote last Friday. As a must-pass bill, the legislation is often the vehicle by which lawmakers try to attach other legislation that has languished in Congress.

In addition to providing 12 weeks of paid family leave related to the birth, adoption or fostering of a child, or to help care for a child, parent or spouse with a serious health condition, the House-passed package includes an amendment that would protect federal employees’ access to their health insurance during a lapse in appropriations. The legislation would ensure that the employees who process coverage changes are excepted from shutdown furloughs, so that employees who experience a significant life event like the birth of a child can adjust their Federal Employees Health Benefits Program plans accordingly.

It also would ensure coverage under the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program and the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program would continue throughout any lapse of appropriations. Currently, if a lapse in appropriations lasts longer than two consecutive pay periods, insurers will bill federal workers directly to maintain their coverage, and can cancel plans after nonpayment.

The House version of the authorization act also includes a provision that mirrors legislation in both the House and Senate that would help protect veterans during bankruptcy proceedings. The Honoring American Veterans in Extreme Need Act (H.R. 2938 and S. 679) exempts Veterans Affairs and Defense department disability payments from the calculation of a debtor’s disposable income in bankruptcy proceedings. Similar language is also included in the Senate version of the Defense bill.

The bill also includes a provision that improves the reimbursement for federal workers who are required to relocate for work, in an apparent effort to fix an unintended consequence of the 2017 tax overhaul. Last year, federal workers found that a deduction for their government payments associated with moving costs for household goods had been stripped from the tax code. As a result, many saw one-time deductions from their paychecks of up to $7,000.

A provision of the authorization act mirrors language in the Relocation Expense Parity Act, which was introduced earlier this year and expands the definition of who is eligible for payments to cover relocation reimbursement-related tax bills to include all feds who are eligible for relocation reimbursement. The language is in both the House and Senate versions of the bill. 

Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management on Tuesday issued guidance to agencies encouraging them to offer expanded telework and other workplace flexibilities as the Washington, D.C. region enters a heat wave with temperatures in the triple digits and high humidity.

“We should take all available steps to help protect our employees during potentially dangerous heat waves,” acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert wrote. “[During] days with severe heat and humidity, agencies are reminded of OPM’s workplace flexibilities that may be used to reduce health risks. With supervisory approval and to prevent work disruptions, a telework-ready employee may telework from home on a day when air quality conditions are poor.”

Despite the reminder from OPM, National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon expressed skepticism that some agencies, which controversially have moved to curtail telework even in the face of OPM’s efforts to promote the alternate work arrangement amid widespread Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority closures in Northern Virginia.

“The administration's hypocrisy on telework cannot go unchallenged,” Reardon said in a statement. “On the one hand, multiple agencies are aggressively trying to curtail telework programs for frontline employees, disrupting employees' lives and hurting productivity. And now we have a memo from the Office of Personnel Management encouraging agencies to use telework and alternative work schedules to help employees cope with the severe heat and humidity this week . . . While we welcome OPM’s focus on employee health and safety, this new memo, once again, clearly illustrates the value of the very program too many agencies and managers are trying to eliminate.”

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