Child care made difficult

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 12 — which represents Washington, D.C., employees — and the Labor Department are at odds over a child-care subsidy program that the union says excludes the majority of its members.

The subsidy program originated from a law passed in 1999 that authorized federal agencies, on a pilot basis, to use funds normally available for salaries to assist lower- income employees with their child-care costs. The pilot phase lasted two years, and on Nov. 12, 2001, President Bush signed legislation making the program permanent.

Part of the problem is that the regulations governing this program are quite flexible and allow each agency to establish eligibility criteria. It's fine to give agencies latitude, but the absence of any requirement gives rise to problems. The other factor is cost. Agencies must absorb the costs of subsidized child care, so some aren't too eager to lower the bar to entitlement.

AFGE notes that two married GS-3, step 1 employees each earning $20,181 annually are not eligible for any child-care subsidy. Office of Personnel Management regulations say that if an agency selects a total family income threshold, as Labor did, it can — but is not required to — use criteria such as those from the Child Care Development Block Grant as they are defined (42 U.S.C. 9858) or a formula based on a percentage of the state poverty level.

In the Labor Department's program, which is still in effect, to be eligible for the subsidy, an employee's family income must not exceed $40,000. Members of AFGE Local 12 thought that was too low based on the example above. When the department made the program permanent, the union put the item on the agenda for the March 2002 midterm bargaining session. Management refused to bargain, and the union filed a second Unfair Labor Practice charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Like the first one filed in 2000, this was also denied.

"It is shameful that the Department of Labor, which likes to promote itself as a model of family friendliness, insists on keeping a program that excludes so many employees," said Larry Drake, AFGE Local 12 president. "The union will continue to fight — just as we did in the 1970s to get the child-care center established. This program needs to be expanded so that all [Labor] employees who need assistance with their child-care costs can benefit."

Drake also noted that Labor has negotiated with AFGE chapters other than Local 12 and agreed to a $59,999 ceiling on eligibility. When asked why the department will not grant this concession to Local 12, Drake said, "They want us to capitulate, and that's not going to happen."

He may be right, but railing against the Labor Department will not help. What he needs to do is present eligibility criteria that make more sense than the department's. So far, this hasn't been made public.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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