Bonuses benefit new hires

Legislation moving through Congress would make it easier for agency officials to reward employees with retention bonuses, but federal unions and other critics fear the incentives will hurt current civil servants and favor new hires, who believe they can earn quick raises.

Lawmakers intend the Federal Workforce Flexibility Act to boost the government's ability to recruit and retain employees by empowering managers to award bonuses and benefits more freely.

The Senate's version of the bill cleared the House Government Reform Committee last month. It is expected to skip a conference committee after passing the full House. Observers predict a speedy passage there. In preparation for a House vote, lawmakers are fine-tuning measures that pertain to compensation time and Federal Aviation Administration retirement details.

Hiring trends in the federal information technology workforce typically mirror shortages of qualified personnel in the government. "That is definitely a priority for us," said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for Brian Burns, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' chief information officer. "We have an aging workforce, so we are definitely looking at recruitment and how to keep younger staff."

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, said the organization supports the bill and calls it a "step in the right direction, but not a panacea," especially if it lacks funding. The National Treasury Employees Union also supports it. Others, such as Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), argue that Congress should fund agencies' existing flexibilities rather than grant new ones.

Chad Bungard, deputy staff director of the reform committee's Civil Service and Agency Organization Subcommittee, said the legislation could act as a control point. "If an agency really has a critical need, they'll learn to reshuffle their money," he said. "They know if they're given that flexibility, they'll have to come up with the money themselves, and they will. That's what agencies do. They reassess."

Others are skeptical. Simon warned that one person's gain would be another's loss if funding dries up. An Office of Personnel Management study released in 1999 found that less than 1 percent of federal employees eligible for bonuses had received payment because of money shortages.

"On the other hand, we didn't jump up and down and say, 'Over our dead bodies' " at a February hearing, she said, adding that AFGE favors rewards and higher pay. But, she said, "career civil servants form the backbone of the government, people who

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