Employees seek ways to fend off budget cuts

FEDERAL WORKERS

January 26, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Federal workers were busy plotting strategies to fend off government budget-cutters as Congress reconvened this week.

In the new Congress, which opened yesterday, lawmakers are likely to take up several key issues that affect federal workers. Thus, many employees are worried they will bear the brunt of anticipated changes in health care and retirement benefits and pay rates.

"To some extent, we're going to be playing defense," said Bruce Moyer, executive director of the Federal Managers Association in Virginia. "The budget-cutters will have their knives out."

The Clinton administration wants to end the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program by the end of 1997 and shift all its money to a state-based alliance. The current health-insurance program, established 34 years ago, serves about 9 million government workers.

Under the administration proposal, workers are likely to pay more for catastrophic care and emergency services, said Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees.

"The bottom line is we can't support a health care system that asks federal employees to pay more for less benefits than we have now," she said.

Dissolving the employee health plan will unfairly punish current members, said Al James Golato, national vice president of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

The group's 500,000 members plan a letter-writing campaign this session to keep the health plan intact, he said. The group lists 117,000 members in Maryland.

But not everyone is predicting gloom and doom. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., 3rd, contends the Clinton plan would bolster health coverage for Maryland's 286,000 federal workers. Under the new plan, the government would pay 80 percent toward worker health care vs. the current 75 percent, said Sean Cavanaugh, an aide to Mr. Cardin.

Another contentious debate is expected over the size of federal paychecks.

Government workers in January received an increase in locality pay. Employees in 13 Maryland counties qualify for the boost, which begins to close the estimated 28 percent gap between the region's federal and private sector paychecks.

The administration is expected to try to scale back those payments by 50 percent over the next five years -- and federal worker groups have vowed a fight.

"We're trying to make sure federal employees don't have to disproportionately carry the cost of deficit reduction," said Gene Voegtlin, legislative liaison for the National Federation of Federal Employees. Since 1981, through salary freezes and cuts in benefits, federal employees contributed $183 billion to deficit reduction, he said.

Last year, the administration sought to delay the locality pay raise for one year and curtail the payments in the three following years. But Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., 5th, joined Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and they successfully preserved the 1994 starting date. The administration will make public its plans for locality pay in the proposed 1995 budget to be released next month.

Federal workers also are worried about buy-outs to reduce the government's ranks by offering a maximum of $25,000 to selected workers as inducement to leave their jobs.

As the administration seeks to cut 252,000 federal employees from the work force in the next five years, lawmakers are debating whether to make every worker eligible for a buy-out -- instead of the current 40 percent of the work force.

"We would like the Clinton administration to go in there full force to push buy-outs this year," said Ms. Witiak of the American Federation of Government Employees.

Finally, government employees expect a bitter fight over cost of living adjustments for retirees. Those payments fatten retirement checks by taking inflation into account.

A bipartisan commission -- led by Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb. -- is set to issue a report on entitlement reform by May 1. Cost of living adjustments are likely to be targeted in that report, said Mr. Golato of the retirees' group.

Last year, Congress delayed cost of living adjustment payments to retirees for three months. Now a deficit-reduction plan by Sens. Kerrey and Hank Brown, R-Colo., would reduce the adjustment by 50 percent.

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