Payroll process should be OK, despite Katrina

FEDERAL WORKERS

September 04, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

HURRICANE KATRINA should not disrupt federal workers' paychecks and retirement plans, even though the government has abandoned its flooded New Orleans-based processing center, officials said.

Workers at the National Finance Center processed Monday's payroll for a half-million federal workers and then fled the city with the magnetic data tapes in hand to a backup site in Philadelphia, which will deliver the next round of paychecks.

"Right now, we're just trying to reach out and account for our employees," said Ed Loyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the center just east of downtown New Orleans. "We're not sure how many have relocated to Philadelphia or Dallas, but some of those people's homes have been destroyed. It's amazing, some of the dedication."

The finance center's roughly 1,500 employees have three responsibilities: process paychecks, store data and take calls concerning the government's $160 billion 401(k) plan, called the Thrift Savings Plan, which serves 3.4 million people. The center processes payroll for about one-fifth of federal workers.

However, as of yesterday, the center's Web site was not working. Federal workers log on to the site to obtain leave balances, read old pay stubs and tax forms, and check their life and health insurance coverage. Workers are trying to transfer these online services to the Agriculture Department's technology center in Kansas City, Mo.

Any correspondence sent to the center by mail also is going to be stalled because the post office is closed.

The retirement plan's managers are asking employees who need to borrow or withdraw money from their accounts - or transfer money among investment funds - to do so online at www.tsp.gov. Managers also are asking agencies to transmit new enrollees' paperwork to another location.

Call centers opened this week in Cumberland and in Clintwood, Va.

In an act of foresight, the Thrift Savings Board, which manages the retirement program, awarded a contract last year to the Beltsville-based Spherix Inc., to handle all of the finance center's calls in the event of a hurricane and half of them during normal times.

"We opened another call center in anticipation of exactly what's happening," Tom Trabucco, a spokesman for the retirement plan, said of the Cumberland location. "We needed one that wasn't geographically vulnerable."

TSP managers recently decided to contract out the rest of the finance center's phone-based services to the Clintwood operation, but it was supposed to operate along with the New Orleans office for a month to ease the transition, Trabucco said.

Retirees' data are being stored at a new, classified location in Northern Virginia. Until last summer, the TSP's emergency plan was to take paper files from New Orleans to Philadelphia. However, Loyd said the Agriculture Department has long had a contingency plan for paycheck services.

"This data is extremely sensitive and important," he said.

New expense rates

The amount of expenses federal workers may claim when on temporary assignments in the Baltimore region was released this week.

Workers assigned to Fort Meade or the Naval Academy can claim up to $104 in hotel expenses per night and $64 in meal and incidental expenses. That year-round rate replaces Anne Arundel County's seasonal schedule, which allowed for higher rates during Annapolis' May-through-October tourist season and lower rates during the rest of the year.

Baltimore City and Baltimore County rates rose considerably, to $200 from $180, including lodging and meals. Howard County's rose to $152, an increase of $5, and Harford County's rose to $120, up $2.

To get access to the complete listing of per diem rates, log on to www.gsa.gov and click on "Per Diem Rates" under "e-Tools" on the right side of the page.

Federal Workers welcomes your comments and story ideas. The writer can be reached at melissa.har ris@baltsun.com, or 410-715-2885. Back issues can be read at www.baltimore sun.com/federal.

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