Welles: Will 2006 be a good year?

For the first time in years, federal retirees got a bigger raise than federal employees

This year might be good for federal employees. Natural disasters such as hurricanes and their effect on gas prices and continuity of operations have increased congressional interest in telework for federal commuters. Meanwhile, new outsourcing protections and retirement planning lie ahead.

Under the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill for the State, Justice and Commerce departments, five agencies have two months to show that teleworking for employees increased from last year or relinquish $5 million in funding.

Federal employees spend an average of 233 hours commuting each year, which is more time on the road than on vacation, according to the Telework Exchange's report "No Free Ride."

Slowly but surely, telework habits are growing for federal workers. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will allow patent examiners to telework using a virtual private network.

In congressional testimony, Dan Matthews, former chief information officer at the Transportation Department, said various DOT agencies provide users with the necessary equipment for wireless networking or Internet connectivity on the department's VPN.

Plenty of other positive developments are in the works for current and former feds. For the first time in many years, federal retirees got a bigger raise than federal employees. Civil Service Retirement System and military retirees will see a 4.1 percent cost of living adjustment in their January checks and throughout 2006. But 3.1 percent for employees is nothing to sneeze at, especially when combined with locality pay.

The Office of Personnel Management is developing programs to help federal employees learn about retirement planning through organized training programs. With half the federal workforce facing retirement by 2010 and large numbers retiring each year before then, there is a need to educate federal workers on how to plan for retirement and calculate their necessary retirement investments.

OPM plans to have an annual governmentwide benefits symposium on retirement financial education to help employees become aware of financial planning resources so they can assist others.

New legislation contains another benefit. The appropriations legislation for the departments of Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development, and the judiciary contains new protection for federal employees facing outsourcing situations.

After federal employees submit their bids, contractors must demonstrate a savings of at least 10 percent or $10 million compared with the employeees' bid. These provisions will apply governmentwide, and the Pentagon is already using them.

Dental and vision benefits can be chosen during this year's open season in November and will take effect in 2007. Meanwhile, the new limited expense health care flexible spending accounts offer a pretax way for federal employees in high-deductible health plans to pay for those benefits. Employees will have 30 days after being notified by the Federal Employees Health Benefits program to establish their spending accounts.

In 2006, federal benefits and pay for performance might become clearer -- with training for managers and better directions from the top.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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