New rules address Y2K worker shortage

Seeking additional manpower to fix the millennium bug that is affecting thousands of federal computers, the Office of Personnel Management last week said it would let agencies hike the salaries of programmers working on Year 2000 projects and waive rules that limit how much retired programmers could earn if they return to government work.

According to a memo issued by OPM Director Janice LaChance on March 30, programmers working on Year 2000 fixes are now eligible for extra pay— called "premium pay"— if their managers determine that the programmers are doing emergency work that is necessary to avert threats to life or property, including monetary losses. In addition, agencies can, with OPM's permission, hire back retirees for programming jobs at full pay.

Luring Programmers

The new policy is designed to attract and retain programmers familiar with the Cobol and Fortran computer languages, which were used to write programs for federal agencies' mainframes mostly during the 1960s and 1970s. These programs recognize years that end in "00" as 1900, not 2000, and government mainframes running those programs today will crash the system or calculate errors if they are not fixed by 2000.

Most federal programmers today did not learn this archaic code, and the private sector's demand for people who know these languages is so great that it is difficult to attract experienced workers. Agencies especially want to hire retired federal programmers because they are the most familiar with these languages and systems.

Although individual agencies will determine for themselves which jobs are covered by the policy, OPM spokeswoman Sharon Wells said most employees or rehired retirees would likely have salaries in the GS-11 to GS-13 level of the federal General Schedule pay scale. These salaries range from $36,609 to $67,827 annually, although a few higher-paid workers might also be eligible.

Wells said that for current employees, the amount of extra pay they may get will be determined by their agencies. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, has started paying its Year 2000 programmers an additional 10 percent.

Agencies can file for waivers that will allow them to offer full salaries to retired government programmers who return to federal work between now and March 31, 2000, when the government expects most of the Year 2000 work to be completed.

Under existing law, retired workers who return to government service can only come back under a reduced pension or lowered salary.

"This will help us in that [if there are] some people out there who are federal retirees who have the code up in their head, we can bring them back," said Mortimer Downey, deputy secretary of the Transportation Department.

DOT has 40 mainframes running software written in Cobol and other outdated languages in some 20 air traffic control locations. These systems are used to track aircraft altitude, speed and distance from other aircraft for the air traffic controllers nationwide.

An Attractive Offer

One federal retiree, who was informed of the policy last week, said the opportunity to retain his pension and receive full pay in a new job might entice him back.

Richard Fidler was a Webmaster with the General Services Administration before he took a recent buyout and went to work on the Year 2000 problem at GEICO, a Chevy Chase, Md., insurance company.

"I would have to give that serious consideration," he said. "It would be double what I'm making now if they took me back at what I was, or a grade [lower]." He declined to say what his salary had been before retirement.

Nevertheless, federal information technology officials said the policy is not a silver bullet to solve the worker shortage.

"It is hard to say how many agencies will take advantage of these options or how many retired workers may want to come back to work on Year 2000," said Kathy Adams, a Social Security Administration IT executive who has led governmentwide Year 2000 efforts. "The point is that the options exist, and the agencies can use them if they need to do so. OPM has responded very quickly."

John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, said, "I don't expect we'll see a large number of people, like thousands, coming back, but I think that the expertise and the availability of that expertise will be significant."

Joel Willemssen, director of civil agencies information systems at the General Accounting Office, said that although GAO is "encouraged" by the initiative, "some agencies still don't have a precise understanding of what their Year 2000 conversion needs are, either from inside employees working on the problem or from contractors. And some still don't know the skills required, which they need to know if they are going to pull this off."

"A Potential Emergency"

A Senate Governmental Affairs Committee aide said law-makers hope, nonetheless, that agencies will use the ''flexibilities'' offered by the policy.

Olga Grkavac, senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division, said OPM's decision sends ''a powerful message that a potential emergency is at hand," but she wondered whether— given the opportunities that retirees have in the private sector— ''in the end, this move may be too little too late."

According to OPM, the new policy for hiring retirees applies only to retired civilian workers or regular military officers, not to military enlisted personnel or reserve officers.

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