Administration officials defend planned cuts to workforce benefits

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At a May 16 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Office of Personnel Management director Jeff Pon told lawmakers that proposed retirement benefit cuts were aimed at aligning the government's personnel practices more closely with those in the private sector.

"I think our retirement system is a bit out of wack," he said. "These proposals are to make sure we're making decisions around how we can operate the federal government in the 21st century."

Pon said that defined-contribution retirement plans would better align with private sector offerings and make it easier for feds to leave government and return "with portable benefits versus ones based on tenure."

On pay, Pon said the general schedule system is an obstacle to incentivizing employees and attracting top talent in high-demand positions, like cybersecurity.

"I want to make sure there is differential pay, market-based pay, so that we can as a government retain the best and brightest," he said. "I think there is a greater need for looking at occupation series and having new pay series for them that are much more flexible, and then we can manage term appointments much better."

Pon also emphasized the need for government to "manage out" poor performers.

To that end, Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, added, "we're looking at how do we use some of the authorities like the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and how we might appropriately apply them across the civilian workforce."

This proposal dovetails with Trump's state of the union address in which he called for expanded firing authority.

Weichert also testified that OMB's long-awaited report on reorganization is "in the clearance process now."

"We expect to be releasing the reorganization and reform report in the coming weeks, and that will start the broader public deliberation process," she said.

Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, called the management agenda "a set of worst practices" that "mask a dark intent to sabotage the operation of federal agencies by degrading the federal workforce."

"The PMA would politicize government functions and operations," she said.

In her prepared testimony, Simon also worried about OPM plans to "right-size" federal pay, which is expected to be part of a workforce package sent to Congress in the fall.

Pon, she said, "aims to cut salaries for lower-graded employees and use the money to raise salaries for their bosses."

Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) questioned how the proposed retirement cuts to employees, which would total $143 billion over 10 years, plus a proposed pay freeze would attract and sustain a talented federal workforce.

Weichert pointed to the $1 billion workforce fund proposed in the White House's fiscal year 2019 budget as a means to recruit and retain high-skill areas and to retrain employees.

Union conflict

The day after the hearing, OPM released a report on the use of "official time" by union officials in the federal workforce. Official time refers to paid hours spent on union business by federal employees – usually those who hold some union office representing members. Official time is allowed under union contracts, but many Republicans think it's getting out of control.

According to the report, unionized feds clocked more than 3.6 million hours of official time in fiscal year 2016, the most recent year for which OPM data is available.

The Departments of Veterans Affairs, Treasury, Transportation, Defense and Homeland Security, along with the Social Security Administration, spent the most on official time in FY 2016. VA paid just over $49 million in wages for official time. DHS paid about $10 million.

The report noted that its data "does not capture a complete accounting of the costs of union activities in the federal government," because some contracts support travel reimbursement and other costs for feds conducting union business.

An OPM press release accompanying the report cited anecdotal examples of two unionized VA nurses hinting that their official time activities are decreasing access to care at the VA clinics where they work.

At the May 16 hearing, Pon characterized the relationship between the administration and unions as "not that good right now," but insisted on the importance of communicating workforce plans with them even though "there's not too much we can agree on."

Weichert said, "I think the reality is there's a lot of partisan positioning that's made that difficult."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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