Legislative year not bad after all Defense Dept., however, is the big exception

Federal Workers

October 14, 1992|By Carol Emert | Carol Emert,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- In the past year, federal employees have been threatened with layoffs, pay cuts and limitations on health benefits and pensions. But by the time the 102nd Congress adjourned last week, most government workers outside of the Defense Department had won more than they had lost.

"In view of the scarcity of dollars, the non-DOD portion of the federal government came out very well indeed," said Nick Nolan, executive director of the Federal Government Service Task Force, a congressional organization that coordinates legislation affecting federal workers.

The Defense Department is facing layoffs of about 100,000 military and 100,000 civilian personnel, Nolan said. Last-minute cuts in the appropriations bill for the departments of Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary may mean staffing adjustments in those agencies, but the FBI is the only group to date that has admitted it is likely to lay off workers, Nolan said.

For DOD personnel who find themselves "riffed" -- losing their jobs due to a "reduction in force" -- Congress has passed legislation designed to make the transition easier.

A recent bill mandates that DOD civilians be notified of impending layoffs 120 days in advance of their scheduled departure, supplanting the previous 60-day notification.

Job-finding services will be offered to victims of downsizing, including training in writing resumes and interviewing. To prepare for a change in career, training programs will be offered at DOD facilities. Civilian agencies are required to give DOD job applicants the first crack at openings.

Civilian DOD employees who agree to leave or retire early may also be eligible for up to $25,000 in separation pay. They will also be allowed to withdraw their investments in the federal Thrift Savings Plan in a lump sum.

Riffed military employees also have some benefits coming. Servicemen and women will be able to retire and draw retirement pay after only 15 years of service, rather than the current 20 years. If they retire after 15 years, and then work for five years in certain service professions such as teaching or law enforcement, they can draw a 20-year pension. The 15-year pension rate is 37.5 percent of salary at the time of retirement; the 20-year rate 50 percent.

"At least [people who are laid off are] going to get treated a little bit better than [they] would have before the 102nd Congress came in," Nolan said.

Federal employees were sweating heavily last January when President Bush, as a cost-cutting measure, asked Congress to postpone for four months federal pay increases scheduled for this coming January.

The president's budget request also called for increases in pension contributions by participants in the civil service retirement system, and it would have imposed caps on payments for medication and physicians' services for federal retirees.

Congress refused to pass any of these measures, largely because they would have violated a 1990 agreement with Bush that resulted from years of bargaining.

Lawmakers also ignored a suggestion by Bush to cut by 5 percent the salaries of all federal workers earning at least $70,000 a year. The president said in a campaign speech in September that he would impose the cut in an executive order, but he decided later to leave it up to Congress "for fairness' sake," according to a White House spokesman.

The end result is the 3.7 percent pay increase that Congress and the executive branch agreed to in 1990, which will kick in this January. Federal, military and Social Security pensions will go up at the same time by about 3 percent.

While pay and jobs in the federal sector remain largely intact, little progress was achieved in two areas that concern many federal workers: participation in political activities and the earning of honorariums for speaking and writing engagements outside of work.

The Hatch Act, which forbids most forms of political activity by federal employees, including volunteering for campaigns, remains in place. Senate leaders refused to bring Hatch Act changes to the floor for a vote because Bush vetoed a similar measure previously, and federal employee advocates could not get enough support to guarantee override of another expected veto.

Federal employees remain banned from earning honorariums for free-lance speaking and writing engagements, despite House passage of a bill that would have reinstated that right. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who objects to free-lancing by congressional staffers, put a hold on the bill in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

The next step for a change in the honorarium ban is likely to come from the courts. Judge Penfield Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington has ruled the ban unconstitutional, but did not overturn it pending an appeal by the administration. An oral hearing on the matter is scheduled for Nov. 6.

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