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Compromise Defense Policy Bill Repeals Pentagon’s Two-Year Probationary Period, Grants Feds Bereavement Leave

Left out of the final bill was a provision that would align the General Schedule and Federal Wage System locality pay maps.

Congress is set to approve its annual Defense policy bill this week, which will repeal the Defense Department’s two-year probationary period for new employees and grant all federal employees up to two weeks of paid bereavement leave per year.

House lawmakers are expected to pass the compromise version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, which also will include an increase to the federal debt ceiling, Tuesday night. The must-pass bill is often used as a vehicle to enact changes to personnel policy affecting the entire federal workforce.

The compromise bill repeals the provision requiring new hires at the Defense Department to complete a two-year probationary period before receiving full benefits and civil service protections, rather than the one-year period most other federal employees must complete. Initially approved as part of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the two-year probationary period has been a sore point for federal employee unions, especially as Republican lawmakers have pushed for it to be applied across the federal government.

“The whole point of a probationary period is management does not have to prove that there was a performance problem at all and can terminate an employee with little cause,” wrote Julie Tippens, director of legislation for the American Federation of Government Employees, in a letter to congressional negotiators Monday. “To suggest that this is necessary to retain a quality workforce is both specious and an insult to the DoD workforce . . . The idea that department management needs an extended probationary period is a reflection of a management philosophy that does not recognize the high costs of turnover that for-profit businesses need to take into account.”

The bill also would provide all federal employees—including civilian feds and members of the armed services—up to two weeks of paid bereavement leave in instances where the employee or member of the military’s child dies.

Another provision would make it easier for federal firefighters to trade shifts. Currently, most agencies prohibit firefighters from trading shifts because the trades often occur across separate pay periods, automatically triggering complications in overtime pay and annual leave, due to their 24-hour shifts and 72-hour work weeks followed by longer periods of time off. Language in the 2022 authorization act would effectively waive overtime and leave provisions in cases where firefighters trade shifts across pay periods.

The bill preserves a provision of the House version of the authorization act that would strengthen the prohibition on the use of arbitrary personnel caps to determine the number of civilian federal employees needed to perform Defense Department duties.

But it adopts the Senate version of language aimed at reducing the use of employee performance as a factor in how the Defense Department engages in reductions in force, which stipulates that performance may be used “among other factors determined by the [Defense] secretary.” The House version of the bill would have placed performance fourth in priority, after tenure, veterans’ preference and length of service, in line with the rest of the federal government.

The bill also provides extensions to waivers to the premium pay cap for civilians working overseas and granting allowances and other benefits to civilians on official duty in a combat zone. It also clears the way for overtime for civilian employees working on naval vessels outside of the continental United States and clarifies that federal employees who are also members of the D.C. National Guard are entitled to leave without loss in pay or time served in their civilian employment while serving during guard mobilizations.

But not included in the final bill was a House provision that would have aligned the locality pay area maps for the General Schedule and blue-collar Federal Wage System. Federal employee groups have repeatedly called for such a provision to be adopted, because while locality pay areas for General Schedule federal employees are updated on a nearly annual basis, the Federal Wage System’s locality pay area map remains mostly unchanged from the 1950s and is based primarily on an outdated list of military installations.