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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

A dozen pin pricks

Small tweaks have long been the way that federal pay and benefits change. The last major alteration to federal pay was the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, which established the locality pay system and created some special authorities for monetary incentives. For the last decade, changes have come sporadically and in bits and pieces. Keeping with that tradition, the Bush administration is planning to incrementally try to improve the government's ability to attract and retain workers, rather than seek sweeping civil service reform. This week, 12 developments demonstrate the minutia method of reform in action on and off Capitol Hill.
  1. Part-timers' retirement. In a July 17 letter, Rep. James Moran, D-Va., asked new Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James to change the way retirement benefits are calculated for certain federal employees who work part-time at the end of their careers. A 1986 budget reconciliation act changed the Civil Service Retirement System rules for federal workers with part-time service, reducing benefits for CSRS workers who ease into retirement by working part-time toward the end of their careers. Moran has introduced legislation (H.R. 136) to change the rule, but he says that OPM could modify its regulations to prevent the benefits formula from penalizing part-time workers, even without the legislation.
  2. Child-care subsidies. The 2002 Treasury-Postal appropriations bill, approved by the House Wednesday night, allows federal agencies to subsidize child care for employees, particularly for low-income workers. A similar provision allowed agencies to subsidize child care last year. Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., has introduced a bill (H.R. 555) to make the authority permanent.
  3. Pay raise push. The House-passed version of the Treasury bill would boost the average civilian pay raise to 4.6 percent next year, above President Bush's proposed 3.6 percent raise. "I remain hopeful that the administration will drop its insistence on a lower raise for federal workers," Moran said in a statement. The Bush administration said in a statement on the Treasury bill that it opposes the higher raise.
  4. Olympics versus raises. An amendment to the Treasury bill diverts $27.9 million from federal security for the 2002 Winter Olympics to help pay for a higher pay raise for civilian employees. The Olympics security was paid for in a separate bill.
  5. Senior employee bonuses. Senior-level and senior-technical employees who are not members of the Senior Executive Service would be eligible for Presidential Rank Awards each year, under a provision in the Treasury bill. Only SESers are currently eligible. The non-executives would be awarded the rank of Meritorious Senior Professional or Distinguished Senior Professional. The distinguished rank comes with a bonus worth 35 percent of salary; the meritorious rank comes with a 20 percent bonus.
  6. Telecommuting watch. The Treasury bill would require OPM to submit a report to Congress by Dec. 1 looking at the utilization of federal telecommuting centers. Such centers are aimed at reducing commuting time for federal workers, but they are not used to their full capacity.
  7. Contraceptive coverage. The Treasury bill also continues a provision requiring federal employees' health plans to cover contraceptives.
  8. Capitol student loan help. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., introduced a bill (H.R. 2555) on July 18 that would allow the legislative branch to repay employees' student loans. Legislative branch employees would only have to commit to one year of service, compared to a 3-year commitment for executive branch employees.
  9. Long-term care tweaks. H.R. 2559, introduced on July 18 by Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., would make technical amendments to the new long-term care insurance program for federal workers. The bill would redefine annuitants for the purpose of the program and prevent states and localities from taxing long-term care insurance premiums. The House Government Reform Committee approved the measure Wednesday.
  10. Pensions for special employees. H.R. 2523, introduced on July 17 by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., would boost pension benefits for law enforcement officers, firefighters, air traffic controllers, nuclear materials couriers, members of the Supreme Court and Capitol police, and their survivors.
  11. IRS bonuses. Rep. Jim Traficant, R-Ohio, proposed an amendment to the Treasury bill that would deny bonuses to Internal Revenue Service executives. House lawmakers voted down the amendment on a voice vote and then on a recorded vote of 401-24.
  12. Special pay-rate case. The National Treasury Employees Union and government negotiators were going to appear before a federal judge on Thursday to provide an update on their efforts to reach a settlement agreement that could provide as much as $100 million in back pay to nearly 200,000 current and former federal employees. But the update session has been pushed back to Sept. 21. The two sides are hoping that confidential mediation sessions will produce an acceptable settlement.

Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

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