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

Debt-Free College for Future Feds, Expanding Military Parental Leave and More

A Democratic senator introduced a bill last month that would allow students to graduate from college debt-free, provided they enter public service.

The Strengthening American Communities Act (S. 2984), introduced in May by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland but announced last week, would establish a National Public Service Education Grant program, which would pay a significant portion of students’ tuition, provided that they agree to work for at least three years in public service. The program could remove many students’ reliance on student loans to pay for post-secondary education, and allow graduates to enter the workforce debt free.

And those already working in positions eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which offers to erase debt after a decade of work in public service, would see relief after only three years.

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“The partnerships, created under the act among the federal government, states [and institutions of higher education], ensure students have a pathway to complete their degree without the burden of taking on exorbitant student loan costs,” Cardin said in a statement. “[No] individual willing to serve their community in a public service career should...

The Growing Retirement Backlog, Encouraging Feds to Volunteer and More

The number of pending federal retirement claims grew in May, despite the fact that the rate of new requests continued to decline last month, the Office of Personnel Management reported Tuesday.

The retirement backlog grew by around 500 claims to 18,024 in May, up from 17,489 the previous month. That happened despite a significant decrease in the number of new retirement requests, which hit a five-month low of 7,625 in May.

The agency’s target “stable state” of pending retirement claims is 13,000.

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Although OPM processed more than 9,000 claims in April, that figure dropped to 7,090 last month. Despite the slowdown in the number of claims, the average time OPM took to process a retirement claim on a monthly basis stayed steady at 58 days. 

Last week, OPM Director Jeff Pon implemented provisions of an Obama-era executive order to boost participation in the federal government’s annual charity fundraising effort. In a memo to agencies, Pon outlined ways that agencies can improve morale and employee retention through the use of group volunteer activities as part of the Combined...

The Fight Over Official Time, TSP Changes and More

The debate over the practice where federal employees who are union members are paid to perform representational duties heated up last week, beginning with a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill and ending with an executive order that aims to significantly curb its use.

Last Thursday, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee assailed the practice of official time during a hearing that lacked in-person input from employee groups. The Republicans called official time a waste of taxpayer dollars and a “subsidy” for union internal and political work.

Democrats, conversely, argued that official time actually saves agencies money, because they foster a collaborative relationship between labor and management, reducing formal grievances and litigation and allowing parties to work together to make operations more efficient and prepare for upcoming initiatives.

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Republican lawmakers particularly derided the fact that in fiscal 2017, 981 federal employees spent at least 50 percent of their time on official time, of whom 221 earned at least $100,000 per year. That issue seemed prophetic, as the next day, President Trump signed a series of executive orders aimed at making it easier...

Pay and Leave Changes for Some, TSP Fund Management and More

Border Patrol agents assigned to look after their canine colleagues while off duty could soon receive overtime credit for those responsibilities under a bill approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. 

The Border Patrol Agent Pay Reform Amendments Act (H.R. 5896), introduced Monday by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Filemón Vela, D-Texas, would provide greater flexibility to Customs and Border Protection to compensate agents for canine care, training and other aspects of their jobs. 

For instance, those agents responsible for caring for the agency's dogs would receive an hour of overtime credit for each calendar day they perform those services (see the legislation for details). The bill also increases the amount of advanced training an agent may participate in, and allows accrual of overtime debt when agents exceed the new cap. Additionally, Border Patrol agents would be able to apply compensatory time off for travel toward previous overtime debt, and some agents would be allowed to use alternative work schedules.

Hurd said in a statement that the bill will “streamline” the overtime process and provide border patrol agents with more reliable paychecks each pay period.

“The men and women of...

A Fix for the Relocation Tax Snafu, an Unsuccessful Push for TRICARE Expansion, and More

The General Services Administration on Monday took steps to correct a situation where federal employees found themselves on the hook for sizeable tax bills related to government-paid relocation expenses after agencies made them move for work.

Officials at the Senior Executives Association had lodged complaints that federal employees who recently were relocated saw one-time paycheck cuts of up to $7,000 as a result of the tax reform law enacted last year. That law removed a deduction for government reimbursements for moving costs related to household goods.  

Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, D-Va., crafted a letter last month to GSA asking officials to move swiftly to tweak rules on the relocation income tax allowance and withholding tax allowance to protect feds from future tax-related sticker shock.

In a bulletin to agency heads this week, Jessica Salmoiraghi, GSA associate administrator in the Office of Government-wide Policy, announced a temporary fix to the problem, until a formal amendment to federal travel regulations can be issued.

“Agencies are authorized to pay WTA and RITA to cover ‘substantially all’ of the increased tax liability resulting from receipt of the relocation expense reimbursements either paid directly or indirectly,” she wrote.

GSA’s memo clarifies...