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Another Pay Freeze Notice, Emergency Leave for Disaster Victims and More

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Although Congress may be well on its way to including a 1.9 percent pay increase for civilian federal employees in its appropriations legislation slated for passage after the midterm elections, the Trump administration is proceeding as if the president’s plan for a pay freeze in 2019 will become reality, for now.

In a memo last week, acting Office of Personnel Management Director Margaret Weichert asked agency chief human capital officers to conduct an annual review of their authorities to offer special pay rates above the General Schedule for certain occupations and regions to ensure they are still being used and are still needed. She noted that next year, any changes to compensation for employees hired at special rates will mirror those for General Schedule employees by default.

“I have determined that the default January 2019 adjustment for special rates will be equal to the January 2019 across-the-board adjustment for GS base rates,” Weichert wrote. “[However], the president has set the January 2019 adjustment for GS base rates at zero by exercising his authority . . . to provide for alternative adjustments in GS base rates.”

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Still, Weichert acknowledged that Congress could overrule President Trump’s proposed pay freeze, first announced with the release of his fiscal 2019 budget  last spring. Last month, Trump suggested he would “study” the issue of federal compensation, although since then, the White House has continued to state that its position is in favor of a pay freeze next year.

“Absent enaction of legislation providing for an adjustment to GS base rates different from zero, the default January 2019 adjustment for special rates will be zero,” Weichert wrote. “Should future legislation provide for an increase in GS rates, the default January 2019 adjustment for special rates will be equal to any January 2019 across-the-board increase in GS base rates.”

Agencies may request raises for their special rate workforce in excess of what is ultimately approved by Congress and Trump, or can ask to reduce or terminate special rate authorities. The deadline for such requests is Oct. 26.

Meanwhile, OPM has announced the establishment of multiple programs for federal workers to donate leave to colleagues in regions struck by natural disasters. On Oct. 2, then-Director Jeff Pon announced an emergency leave transfer program to benefit victims of the recent California wildfires, and last week, Weichert implemented a similar program for victims of Hurricane Florence.

Through these programs, federal employees may donate unused annual leave for feds who have been impacted by one of these natural disasters, so that they may take additional time off from work without having to use their own paid leave. Agencies are responsible for determining how many of their employees will require leave and facilitating the creation of a leave bank.

In the announcement of a leave transfer program for Hurricane Florence victims, Weichert highlighted 2017 OPM guidance, issued after three hurricanes made landfall in the United States in short succession, on how agencies should manage multiple emergency leave transfer programs at once, ensuring that enough leave is available for each set of disaster victims. Those guidelines include encouraging donors to split up their leave hours between each disaster and allowing donors to designate leave not used under one leave program to another active leave transfer program.

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Erich Wagner is a staff correspondent covering pay, benefits and other federal workforce issues. He joined Government Executive in the spring of 2017 after extensive experience writing about state and local issues in Maryland and Virginia, most recently as editor-in-chief of the Alexandria Times. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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