Raises OK'd, but order needed for locality pay


December 02, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS

President Bush has approved a 3.1 percent pay raise for federal workers to take effect next year, but the raises will not be paid until the president signs an executive order dividing the pot among across-the-board raises and regional adjustments, called "locality pay."

Passed in 1990, locality pay helps the federal government provide wages closer to private-sector salaries in high cost-of-living cities, such as San Francisco and New York. For instance, last year, in addition to a 2.7 percent across-the-board raise, federal workers in New York received a 2.16 percent increase in locality pay -- compared with 1.72 percent in Baltimore and its surrounding counties.

This year, the Federal Salary Council recommended a 2.1 percent across-the-board raise for next year, with an additional 1.34 percent in locality pay for the Baltimore area.

In two of the past three years, Bush has delayed signing the executive order that divvies up the raise, according to the National Treasury Employees Union. That delay forced the raise to come in stages, with some employees not getting their due until midyear. Those raises were retroactive.

Unions are urging Bush to sign the order promptly, as he did last year.

Pentagon pay plan

Defense workers now have access to long-awaited details about how their jobs would be classified and their pocketbooks rewarded under the Pentagon's new pay-for-performance system.

The rules would replace the general schedule, a half-century-old pay scale that gives workers reliable annual raises and, in practice, poorly distinguishes between average and above-average work.

"Professional" jobs, or those that require college degrees, would be divided into four categories: standard, including accountants or attorneys; medical; scientific; and investigative.

Each of these categories would have career subgroups, and those subgroups would be divided into pay bands, based on workers' experience. In most cases, pay bands would range from "entry level" to "expert," with one level in between.

Current general schedule grades have been assigned corresponding pay bands. Employees would be automatically transferred at the start.

The other important piece of this is pay. Raises would be based upon "shares." An agency would have a certain amount available for raises, called a "pay pool." Performance ratings determine how many "shares," or how much money, each person wins from that pool, making the workplace more competitive.

The details of the plan are voluminous and, many say, confusing. Whether all of these changes happen is up to the courts, which will hear arguments on the unions' challenge Jan. 24.

"They're running this in a way that clearly disadvantages workers," said Mark Gibson, a labor relations expert with the American Federation of Government Employees. The internal policies are available on the Internet at cpms.osd.mil/nsps/issuances.html. More to come on this in coming weeks.

Health benefits

The federal government has made final the amount of dental and vision coverage that health insurers must provide federal employees and retirees to win contracts offering the new service, according to the Office of Personnel Management, the agency charged with running the new program.

Congress passed legislation last year requiring OPM to improve its dental and vision benefits, which are minimal, by December 2006. Companies have until Jan. 17 to submit plans explaining how they would do that.

At a recent forum on health benefits, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, a retiree complained that she needed five crowns, but her insurance would not cover them.

Kenneth Glass, an expert on retirement benefits at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said the new program's minimum requirements are better than what workers have now, but not as good as his employer's.

The government will not pay any of the premiums for this service. Enrollment will be voluntary, start during next year's open season and be in addition to regular health insurance.

Insurers' bids must provide the following benefits to federal workers, retirees and their dependents:

Preventative dental care: Enrollees should pay no more than "a small co-pay" for routine care, such as X-rays, fluoride treatments and teeth cleanings.

Intermediate dental work: Enrollees should pay up to half of the bill for these services, such as root canals and tooth removal, including a maximum $100 deductible and co-pay. The cap was previously 30 percent after the deductible and co-pay, according to a draft of the criteria.

Major dental work: Enrollees should pay up to 70 percent of the bill for crowns, dentures and bridges, including a maximum $100 deductible and co-pay. The draft's cap was 60 percent after the deductible and co-pay.

Orthodontics: After a two-year wait for eligibility, enrollees should pay up to 70 percent of the bill. That rate has not changed, but OPM added a $1,500 maximum lifetime benefit, at the least, for that kind of care.

Vision: OPM wants insurers to offer full coverage for annual eye exams and more testing for infants, toddlers and patients at high risk for glaucoma, diabetes and other diseases. Plans also should offer some type of coverage for glasses.

Companies also can submit "high" and "standard" options, meaning some plans may have higher premiums, offer superior benefits or charge lower fees for services.

The writer can be reached at 410-715-2885 or melissa.har ris@baltsun.com. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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