President pushes for electronic records system for speedier pensions

FEDERAL WORKERS

New records system could put pensions out quicker

March 31, 2006|By LARRY CARSON

President Bush's chief personnel adviser lobbied Congress this week for an electronic record-keeping system that would speed the payment of retirees' pensions, calling the current paper-based files a "shameful way" of doing business and difficult during a period of escalating retirements.

Most retirees receive smaller "interim" pension payments for several months while Office of Personnel Management staff members rifle through agencies' files and calculate the full amount. If a worker has switched agencies or returned to the civil service after an absence, the paperwork submission and calculations become even more cumbersome.

Workers are reimbursed the difference, which could amount to as much as $770 a month, albeit without interest.

In August, OPM processed about 80 percent of cases within 90 days of receiving paperwork from a worker's agency. Agency Director Linda M. Springer wants 90 percent of cases processed within 30 days by Oct. 1.

Labor act trim

Springer also told Congress that the administration may ax a portion of its proposal to overhaul the civil service, the so-called Working for America Act.

The draft legislation would spread changes under way at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to the rest of the government. Instead of annual, across-the-board raises, managers would review and rate employees. Raises would be based on the ratings.

But the draft also would strip unions of many collective bargaining rights. Springer said that her agency is considering removing that section.

However, it is unlikely that unions will back away from their opposition.

The act "holds out the false promise that government service to America's taxpayers would improve if only federal employees were paid less and had fewer workplace rights," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Survey could stop

The Department of Labor is proposing to eliminate a survey designed to track whether federal contractors' fairly pay, promote, hire and fire minorities and women.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, was one of 28 senators to sign a letter this week opposing the end of the Equal Opportunity Survey. The Labor Department is supposed to send the survey to half of all non-construction contractors each year and evaluate each contractor every other year, the letter says.

"The office now sends the survey to only 10,000 contractors, and has, on at least one occasion, skipped sending out the survey altogether," the letter reads. "There is no justification for eliminating this program before it has been fully implemented and properly utilized."

Women's groups have argued that the survey gives a rare look at private-sector pay gaps, but agency officials argue that the survey is flawed.

The agency commissioned two studies that compared the 2002 results of the survey with 1,888 contractors whose civil rights practices had been reviewed by Labor Department staff.

The studies found that 93 percent of the contractors the survey flagged as discriminatory were, in fact, not. It also found that the survey missed "a substantial percentage" of real discrimination. Essentially, the consultants concluded that the survey, which cost about $356,000, not including validation costs and staff time, didn't predict discrimination well enough to justify its cost.

"If we try to fix it, tweak it or improve it by reducing the false-positives, then the false-negatives rise," meaning the survey would miss real discrimination, said Charles James, deputy assistant secretary for federal contract compliance. "It can't be fixed.

"The people who find it valuable have never actually used it. They have a concept [of how it should work], but not operational or empirical data to say that it does work. ... To do another survey would further waste taxpayer dollars."

The writer can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com, or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues of the column can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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