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

New Locality Pay Areas Finalized, a Pay Raise Decision Delayed and More

The Office of Personnel Management on Friday will publish a rule to the Federal Register officially adding four new places to the list of areas where federal employees are paid more generously to compete in more expensive labor markets.

Effective Jan. 5, the list of new locality pay areas will include Birmingham-Hoover-Talladega, Ala.; Burlington-South Burlington, Vt.; San Antonio-New Braunfels-Pearsall, Texas; and Virginia Beach-Norfolk, Va. The additions will effectively give around 62,000 federal workers a raise beginning with their first paychecks of 2019 (if federal pay is not frozen).

Additionally, the rule expands the Albuquerque-Santa Fe-Las Vegas, N.M., region to include McKinley County, N.M., a move that will impact around 1,600 General Schedule employees. And San Luis Obispo County, Calif., will be added to the Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif., region, adding about 100 federal workers.

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Federal employees living in areas with their own locality pay rates typically receive greater pay bumps than those in the rest of the country, to reflect a higher cost of living. The additions were approved by the President’s Pay Agent last December, and OPM first issued...

Tips on Picking the Best Health Plan During Open Season

It's less than two weeks until the deadline to sign up or change plans through the federal government’s health insurance program for civilian employees, and with nearly 300 options, it can be tough to find the best value.

There is much to consider: premiums, the amount of out-of-pocket costs you expect, catastrophic limits and physician networks. If you weigh these elements carefully, you can find a plan that could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars.

The deadline for selecting a new FEHBP plan for next year is Dec. 10. If you’re still struggling to wade through the 280 plans available, help is on the way. Consumers’ Checkbook is back with its annual Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, which provides ratings on all of the plans available, both nationally and locally.

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The guide provides both overall ratings, and ratings broken down by different factors, including insurance value, limits on out-of-pocket costs, premiums and other considerations. It also rates the various standalone plans available through the Federal Employees Dental/Vision Program.

The nonprofit advises federal employees to find the cheapest plan...

A Plea for Tax Help for Relocating Feds, Locality Pay on Track for 2019

Two Democratic senators last week asked the General Services Administration to do more to help federal workers navigate the new tax code when they are forced to relocate to a new duty station.

Earlier this year, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Virginia Democrats, pushed GSA to resolve a consequence of the 2017 tax overhaul bill that put federal employees on the hook for thousands of dollars in tax bills related to government-paid relocation expenses after agencies required them to move for work.

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In May, GSA announced that it would authorize agencies to pay increased relocation income tax allowances (RITA) and withholding tax allowances (WTA) to cover “substantially all” of the increased tax bills associated with a provision of the tax law that removed the deduction for government reimbursements related to household goods. But Kaine and Warner last week urged GSA Administrator Emily Murphy to do more to ensure federal employees are properly informed of their options.

The crux of the issue is that some federal employees reportedly have only been informed of the changes to RITA, a program that can take an extended...

Federal Salary Council Revives Fight Over Federal Employee Pay Comparability

Members of a group tasked with advising agency officials on how to eliminate pay disparities between federal employees and their private sector counterparts are in the midst of a debate on how best to calculate that pay gap, with Trump administration appointees on one side and labor groups on the other.

The Federal Salary Council on Tuesday weighed potential changes to how the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates pay disparities to determine which regions require their own locality pay levels so that federal employees’ pay keeps pace with workers in the private sector.

The three Trump administration appointees argued that the current methodology does not adequately capture differences in pay and advocated, among other ideas, that the White House propose legislation to require pay comparisons to include “total compensation,” including non-salary benefits like health insurance and pensions. But the proposal, along with two more modest suggestions to widen data collection, were opposed by members representing federal employee unions, who argued the proposed changes were an attempt to “politicize” the council’s work.

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Council Chairman Ronald Sanders said the current methodology, which consists of examining the...

Cost of Living Adjustments for Military Retirees, the Blended Retirement Deadline Looms and More

The Defense Department announced Tuesday that military retirees and survivors will receive an increase in their pay and annuities in 2019.

Beginning Jan. 1, most military retirees, enrollees in the Survivor Benefit Plan and survivors of service members who died on active or inactive duty, will receive a 2.8 percent increase to their retired pay, the Pentagon said in a statement.

Additionally, survivors who are eligible for the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance program will receive a 2.8 percent increase, with the maximum amount available reaching $318. The Defense Department calculated the cost of living adjustment based on the increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers between September 2017 and September 2018.

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Officials at the federal government’s 401(k)-style retirement savings program are reminding service members that they have less than two months to decide whether to opt into the Thrift Savings Plan for matching contributions.

Dec. 31 is the deadline for members of the military to decide whether to enroll in the Blended Retirement System. The program offers for the first time an employer match...