The Democrat-controlled Congress is expected to rein in efforts to shift government jobs to the private sector, enhance agency oversight and stall controversial personnel reforms, as four members of Maryland's delegation take on key roles when it comes to issues that affect federal workers.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, incoming chair of the Retirement Security and Aging subcommittee, wrote a letter to the director of the National Institutes for Health asking for a response to a Sun report that portions of a $250 million federal laboratory in southeast Baltimore may be unusable because of vibrations in the building.
The senator's spokeswoman said yesterday that Mikulski also would push to even out the process employees go through to save their jobs from being contracted out, naming this as her top civil service issue.
To win job competitions, private sector bidders must demonstrate that their employees can do the job for 10 percent less money than government workers. Unions have alleged that those savings have come from companies offering cheaper retirement and health benefits.
One proposal, which Mikulski and other Democrats have pushed into spending bills but have not succeeded in making permanent or government-wide, would prevent companies from using inferior benefits to get a competitive advantage.
"We don't have to have this battle annually," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat on the House's Federal Workforce subcommittee, in an interview this week. "This is not going to be first thing out of the box, but we should have some success trying to deal with this in a permanent way. It doesn't make any sense to have a patchwork system that depends entirely on the whims of the appropriations subcommittees."
Federal workers also will see a longtime ally in the No. 2 post in the House after Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, of Maryland, won the race for majority leader yesterday.
Hoyer has tried to block efforts to reduce unions' collective bargaining rights, a keystone of President Bush's pay-for-performance programs at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. According to Government Executive magazine, Hoyer also has sponsored legislation that would give federal workers full pay for half of the 12 weeks of maternity or paternity leave.
In addition to those three, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings also serves on the federal workforce subcommittee with Van Hollen.
Along with contracting issues, Cummings listed whistleblower protections as a key item on his agenda. Congress, however, will either have to overturn or work around a complex U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed those rights in some situations earlier this year.
"If we're going to root out a lot of waste and fraud, we've got to be able to give stronger protection to whistleblowers," he said.
Cummings added that he expects "cooperation" on some of these issues because so many committee members represent federal workers.
Federal workers and retirees have new vision and dental plans to choose from during this year's open season, and, as is tradition, this column turns to expert Walton Francis to help participants pick the right plans for them.
Francis, a former policy director at the Department of Health and Human Services, is author of Checkbook's Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees.
Vision: This year, workers may choose from six nationwide vision plans. The plans cover an annual eye exam and a pair of glasses or contacts every year. Some plans cover disposable contacts.
"There's nothing special to these plans," Francis said. "They don't pay for any medical care. They're a way to get discounts on an annual pair of glasses. If you want sunglasses or two pairs in case you lose one, you have to wait until next year or pay out of your own pocket."
Here's one instance in which vision benefits could pay off for a federal worker.
A single person in Spectera Standard, the cheapest vision plan, pays a premium of almost $70 per year. That premium is deducted from workers' (but not retirees') paychecks prior to taxes, so it's really about $50 per year. The plan covers a pair of frames up to $130. So, if the frames cost $120, you save $70 on them. The lens co-pay is $25, creating additional savings.
"If you want to do that, fine, but most of us would rather wander around on our own and not bother with it," Francis said.
Dental: The dental plan offerings are more complex and geared toward people with low-to-medium dental expenses, said Francis.
"What these plans don't do is help people with really high dental expenses," he said. "Six of the seven plans have a cap on how much they'll pay out per person."
Most caps are $1,200 per year.
In Maryland, workers can choose from seven options, and most annual premiums for a single person run between $300 and $400 a year. All cover orthodontic work, but not until after a wait period of a year or two.
"It's very important to know what plan your dentist is with," he said. "If your dentist is preferred in one plan, join that one because no plan stands out as a whole lot better than the others."
To order a book or access it online, go to www.checkbook.org. Rate comparisons also are available at www.opm.gov/insure.
The writer can be reached at 410-715-2885 or melissa .email@example.com. Previous columns can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.