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The nation's largest federal employee union this week renewed calls for lawmakers to pass legislation improving the pay and benefits of federal workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement submitted to the House Oversight and Reform Committee ahead of a Wednesday hearing on protecting essential workers in both the public and private sectors during the COVID-19 outbreak, the American Federation of Government Employees reiterated its support for measures to help employees, including hazard pay for employees who cannot work remotely, a lower burden of proof for coronavirus-related workers compensation claims, and making telework available for all federal workers whose work is portable.
Last month, the House passed the HEROES Act, which included the establishment of a fund that would provide all essential workers, including federal employees, with $13 per hour, up to $10,000, in premium pay over the course of the pandemic, retroactive to Jan. 27. The bill also would stipulate that employees whose duties require "substantial contact" with the public will be presumed to have contracted the virus in the workplace for the purpose of workers compensation claims. The Senate has yet to consider the legislation.
"AFGE supports provisions included in the [HEROES Act] to address certain essential worker issues," the union wrote. "[They] provide some important health and worker safety provisions that will ensure federal employees have the protections and resources needed during this public health emergency, as well as the ability to successfully carry out their duties and serve the American public."
Even if the Senate passes the bill, which is seen as unlikely, the union said Congress must do more to help federal employees during the pandemic. AFGE urged the committee to ensure there is universal testing and contact tracing across all federal agencies, and requested a bill to open enrollment in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program during the outbreak.
"AFGE urges the committee to amend current law to allow federal employees who are not currently enrolled in a FEHBP health plan the opportunity to purchase health care coverage during this public health emergency," the union wrote. "Many career part-time federal employees are not enrolled in FEHBP . . . Prior to COVID-19, many part-time employees opted out of FEHBP because they could not afford their share of premiums."
In a separate letter to the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services committees last week, AFGE Legislative Director Alethea Predeoux urged lawmakers to include a number of federal workforce protections in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass bill that often contains governmentwide policy provisions.
Among the proposals highlighted by Predeoux, the union requested a provision preventing the use of appropriated funds to exempt any portion of the Defense Department workforce from federal sector labor law. The push comes after Government Executive uncovered a White House memo last January authorizing Defense Secretary Mark Esper to remove Pentagon employees' collective bargaining rights, citing the need for "flexibility." Thus far, Esper has not used his new authority.
Additionally, the union called for a provision requiring the Office of Personnel Management to align the Federal Wage System areas, a system for determining locality pay for hourly workers, with the locality pay areas for General Schedule workers.
"Hourly and salaried workers who work side-by-side in the same place for the same employer and who travel the same roads to get to and from work are treated as though they are in different locations," Predeoux wrote. "AFGE urges you to prohibit OPM from including more than one local wage area within a General Schedule pay locality and provide direction to align the Federal Wage System areas with General Schedule locality pay areas."
The union also called on Congress to expand the new paid parental leave program, which provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave for new birth, foster and adoptive parents, to include family leave. The House last year pushed for full family leave, which also allows for paid time off during medical emergencies and separations due to military service, but that was reduced to parental leave during negotiations with the Senate. AFGE also urged inclusion of the Federal Employee Parental Leave Technical Correction Act (H.R. 5885), which codifies that non-Title 5 employees also are eligible for the new benefit.