Officers vie for better pensions and status

FEDERAL WORKERS

September 23, 2005|By Melissa Harris

Jack Ramsey has arrested drug traffickers, wanted men and stowaways at Baltimore's port. He carries handcuffs, a gun, pepper spray and a radio on his utility belt. He wears a dark blue uniform.

He has the powers of a law enforcement officer, but technically he is not one.

Ramsey and the National Treasury Employees Union are gearing up for a second push to gain that status in anticipation of federal law enforcement reforms Congress is expected to take up this year.

Law enforcement status would allow Ramsey and his co-workers at the port and at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to retire with full benefits at age 50 after 20 years of service, or after 25 years of service regardless of age.

It also would increase some Customs and Border Protection officers' salaries early in their careers. The earliest such officers can retire now is at age 55 after 30 years of service.

If those changes are included in the reforms, passage could be possible because Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House government reform committee, would be shepherding the legislation.

Two previous attempts to gain the status failed, despite almost 170 and 212 co-sponsors each. Another bill has sat idle in Congress since March.

The dormant proposal would do more than affect workers at Baltimore's ports of entry. About 30,000 officers from more than two dozen agencies, including the U.S. Mint and the Department of Veterans Affairs, would benefit, said Brynn Barnett, a spokeswoman for Rep. John McHugh, a New York Republican who is one of the bill's sponsors.

The majority of those workers, at least 18,000, are from Ramsey's group, Customs and Border Protection. That agency was stitched together in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and its professionalism has increased during the four years that Ramsey, a retired Navy veteran, has worked for it.

In that time, training jumped from 13 weeks to 16 to 21 weeks, depending on assignments, Ramsey said. On-the-job training continues for a year.

Ramsey said full law enforcement benefits are needed for Baltimore's port to recruit and retain officers. A Sun investigation in July found considerable gaps in port surveillance and staffing, concerns that employees said were ignored when brought to supervisors.

"It's disheartening when you're out with all of these agencies conducting searches, and you're the only one without law enforcement retirement," said Ramsey, a member of the agency's anti-terrorism contraband team. "We're in just as much danger."

Although the change could boost morale, a recent study from the Congressional Budget Office found that on average, nationwide and in Washington, federal officers are paid more than their state and local counterparts. The large survey doesn't provide a breakdown for Maryland. It also doesn't separate Ramsey's division from others or take into account retirement benefits.

Drew Crockett, a spokesman for the House government reform committee, said leaders are taking the survey results into consideration.

Retirement proposal

A group of 100 House Republicans has proposed reducing federal retirees' pensions and increasing health insurance costs for some to pay for hurricane relief.

The Republican Study Committee's proposal would include two years of lower pay when calculating a federal retiree's pension benefit. Currently, the monthly check is based on an average of an employee's three highest-earning years. The other proposal would force retirees with less than 30 years of government service to pay higher health insurance premiums.

The two changes would save $11.5 billion over 10 years, according to the committee's report.

Judy Park, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, isn't sounding the alarm yet, saying fiscal conservatives have been proposing at least one of those ideas for more than 30 years and that the committee doesn't have the votes to get either one passed.

But that doesn't mean the association and its 400,000 members aren't irritated.

"How ironic is it that this committee would offset Katrina relief by cutting the earned economic and health security of the very federal workers that are laboring to get Gulf Coast businesses and residents back on their feet," the group's president, Charles L. Fallis, said in a statement this week.

Abuse bill

Members of the military who are raped, abused or stalked would be guaranteed greater privacy under legislation proposed in Congress this week.

Pentagon policy limits victim confidentiality. Victims can consult with doctors, therapists and advocates without triggering an investigation, but once they file criminal charges against their assailants, records from those discussions can be subpoenaed in military court.

Under the proposed law, which has 15 co-sponsors, a victim could stop that disclosure. The bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, said in a statement that current policy deters victims from seeking help.

Last month, a panel ordered by Congress faulted the Military Academy and the Naval Academy for a culture that contributed to sexual assaults, calling responses "sporadic and incomplete." The panel recommended that the academies increase the number and visibility of female officers.

Federal Workers welcomes your ideas and story suggestions. The writer can be reached at 410-715-2885 or melissa.harris @baltsun.com. Recent back issues can be read at www.baltimore sun.com.

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