Feds issue rule for honoring fallen employees with flag

Long-awaited regulation follows contentious debate

September 14, 2014|By John Fritze | The Baltimore Sun

Getting a flag from the federal government wouldn't have provided much consolation for the family of the U.S. Postal Service employee who was shot to death last year on his route in Prince George's County.

But June Barnette, a great-uncle of Tyson Barnette, says a flag would have been a welcome gesture of respect for the 26-year-old letter carrier, whose death sparked a national debate about the safety of after-hours mail delivery.

"I feel deep in my heart that it would have been appreciated," said Barnette, who lives in South Carolina, where his great-nephew grew up. "Ain't nothing like that going to hurt. It would only make the family feel better."

After years of sometimes contentious debate, the Office of Personnel Management has issued a long-awaited rule permitting federal agencies and the Postal Service to bestow flags on the families of civilian employees killed in the line of duty.

Twenty federal and postal workers have died on the job since the Obama administration began work on the regulation in 2011. More than 3,000 have died since 1992 — including those killed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and last year's shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard.

The rule, which came three years after Congress approved the law authorizing the gesture, was praised by groups representing federal employees. Many had asked why OPM was taking years to implement a law that received unanimous support in both the House and Senate.

"It is a small measure to recognize their work on behalf of their country and the American people — work that is often done with great dedication, but little fanfare," Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said in a statement.

Yet some said OPM should have gone further to ensure families receive a flag by making the delivery automatic rather than requiring families to make a request.

"It's better than it has been," said Jessica Klement, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which has advocated on the issue for years. "But these regulations just put so much burden on these grieving families."

An OPM official noted the underlying law, the Civilian Service Recognition Act, deals only with cases in which a family member requests a flag.

The seemingly benign idea, which in Maryland drew co-sponsors from liberal Democratic Rep. Donna F. Edwards to conservative Republican Rep. Andy Harris, was initially criticized by the American Legion and some conservatives for fear it would equate military and civilian service.

"We certainly respect the service and dedication of those who sign up for civil service, but these individuals pledge much less than our service members and veterans," the Legion said in a 2011 statement.

In response to those concerns, supporters removed a requirement that a civilian's family receive a flag in the same manner as a deceased member of the armed services, such as at a funeral. They struck a provision allowing a flag to be draped over the casket of a deceased civilian employee.

Sponsors also added a stipulation that, to be eligible for a flag, a federal worker must have died as a result of a crime, an act of terrorism, a natural disaster or "other circumstance as determined by the president."

The American Legion backed the revised bill and the measure passed.

The rule follows other efforts by the federal government to honor fallen civilian workers. They include a "Wall of Honor" in Washington that memorializes 27 employees who died in the line of duty. OPM dedicated the wall last year and will update the names using the Civilian Service Recognition Act's guidelines.

Individual agencies, such as the State Department in Washington and the CIA in Langley, Va., have their own memorials listing fallen employees.

OPM unveiled the regulations two days before the 13th anniversary of the 2001 attacks, in which dozens of civilian federal employees at the Pentagon and in New York were killed. The announcement came nearly a year after the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013, in which 12 federal workers and contractors were killed, including six who lived in Maryland.

Among those killed were federal workers Vishnu Pandit of North Potomac and Kenneth Proctor of Waldorf.

Neither the law nor the regulations address federal contract workers. And the benefit applies only to those who died on or after Dec. 20, 2011.

Barnette, the postal worker, would likely be eligible. The Upper Marlboro man was gunned down while delivering a package in Cheverly on Nov. 23. Authorities have made no arrests in the case.

An attack on a mail carrier is a federal crime.

Barnette's great-uncle said the government had done much for his nephew, but he expressed unease at the pace of the investigation into his killing.

"We must remember the federal employees throughout the nation and the world who lose their lives while serving the American public," Katherine Archuleta, OPM's director, said in a statement.

"Authorizing agencies to present an American flag to the families or friends of the fallen is another way for us to pay tribute to their loved one's service and to their dedication to this great country," she said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Flags for fallen federal employees

The Office of Personnel Management has issued new rules allowing federal agencies to honor civilian employees with a U.S. flag if:

• The employee was killed as a result of a crime, an act of terrorism or a natural disaster.

• The request is made by a spouse, child or other relative or close family affiliation.

• The death occurred on or after Dec. 20, 2011.

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