Secret Service May Get Overtime Pay Cap Raise

overtimeA House panel has voted to advance a bill that would raise the cap on total pay U.S. Secret Service employees can earn in 2017. Last month, the Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles said more than 1,000 agents, one-third of the agency’s workforce, have already hit the cap on the amount of overtime they can receive this year.

The 2017 Secret Service Recruitment and Retention Act (H.R. 3731), introduced by Reps. John Katko (R-NY) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD), would raise the pay cap for Secret Service employees from $160,000 a year to $187,000 for 2017-2018.

“The men and women of the Secret Service deserve to be paid for the hours they work, period,” Katko and Cummings said. “They put their lives on the line every day and make tremendous personal sacrifices for our country. However, we can’t expect the Secret Service to recruit and retain the best of the best if they are not being compensated for the additional work that’s demanded of them.”

Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) said, “The Secret Service can’t continue to rely on excessive overtime to fix its staffing problem. While the pay cap waiver is a short-term fix, Congress fully intends to continue to focus on ensuring the Secret Service implements a long-term, meaningful reform to improve hiring and retention thereby reducing the need for overtime at the agency.”

House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said, “Proper funding is critical to an agency tasked with a zero-fail mission. Extending the pay gap waived at the Secret Service ensures agents, officers, and other employees are properly compensated for the critical work they perform each day.”

Elijah Cummings said, “Logic tells you if you’re not going to get paid, you’re probably going to go somewhere else. And these people can go almost to any agency because they are held in such high-esteem.”

It also directs the agency to submit a report on their recruitment and retention efforts, including data on attrition, morale issues, and strategies to address these issues. The report is also to include the total number of agents receiving premium pay above the pay limitation along with the total amount of premium pay paid to agency employees in the current calendar year.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the bill without amendment and by voice vote.

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Buyouts at EPA–Is that a Good Thing?

epa

More than 400 EPA employees are taking buyouts or early retirement and will be gone by the end of September. However, that number is still far below the goal set by Administrator Scott Pruitt in July.

The EPA said at the time it would accept a max of 1,228 applications through the Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority Programs. The agency set aside $12 million to pay for the incentives, which max out at $25,000 depending on the tenure and salary.

According to the Washington Post, 362 employees have accepted a buyout, 12 retired at the end of August, 33 are planning to retire at the end of September, and 45 are still considering retirement offers. If all those employees leave, EPA’s workforce would drop to 14,428, which would be the smallest the agency has seen in about 30 years.

John O’Grady, president of American Federal of Government Employees National Council of EPA Locals #238 said he thinks that the continued reduction in the workforce will make it hard for the agency to respond to disasters and crises.

“It’s disturbing. We’re seeing the response to Hurricane Harvey now, and the U.S. EPA has responded to all the disasters that I can remember going to back to the anthrax problem in the Hart Senate Office Building in 2001, and Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The administration seems intent on getting the numbers of employees down further, but the question is: who’s going to do the job?”, he said.

Those who oppose the workforce cuts will keep a close eye on EPA’s responses to Harvey and Irma to see if they suffer from the latest buyouts. O’Grady said, “One thing we’re trying to find out is whether or not we’re able to respond to Harvey and Irma with the same kind of numbers as we have in the past. Our on-the-scene coordinator staffing is down, so how could we respond with that same kind of vigorous action that we have in the past?”

It is still unclear if the EPA’s budget will get cut by 31 percent, as proposed.

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Benefit Cutting for Feds with Unions?

senate

The Senate is gearing up to vote on two measures aimed at curbing federal employees’ ability to work on union representational issues while on the clock. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) offered a controversial measure as an amendment to the Senate’s annual defense authorization bill. It would prevent employees from counting years where they worked at least 80 percent on union representational duties toward their retirement pensions.

This bill would also prevent these employees from receiving bonuses and prohibit employees from engaging in any political activity, including lobbying, while on official time.

The term “official time” would get replaced with “federal taxpayer-funded union time”.

The second amendment would demand that the Office of Personnel Management issue more routine reports on official time usage. OPM is not required by the Senate to issue these reports and they last released information on official time use in 2014.

House Republicans have made many attempts to increase oversight and reduce usage of official time over the last few years. However, the Senate has largely ignored these efforts. Lawmakers originally enabled unions to use official time to compensate labor groups for having to represent employees they couldn’t’ require paying dues.

Generally, unions have called official time an “existential threat” saying Republicans were looking for avenues to carry out their opposition to collective bargaining.

The American Federal of Government Employees called the retirement bill “union busting” that would “silence the voice of workers”.

“Federal managers and their employees are fully competent to negotiate the terms of official time when it is needed, how much is needed, and where it should be used to address unique agency and workplace issues,” AFGE wrote in a letter to the House Committee.

A similar letter, by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said it was more efficient for one employee to work 100 percent on official time than for two to split their time between union and official agency business.

IFPTE wrote, “For civil servants to be able to do their jobs effectively and to report wrongdoing without fear of reprisal, they must have credible and effective representation, independent of management, that can interact at all levels of government to provide decision makers with a more balanced and complete picture to allow for better and more informed overall governance.”

Lawmakers frequently turn to cutting federal employees’ retirement benefits when proposing budget-cutting reforms. So, it’ll be interesting to see what actually happens with these proposals.

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Overall Federal Hiring Increases and Veteran Hiring Decreases

veteran

Even with agencies hiring fewer new veterans to fill government jobs, veterans still had a stronger presence in the federal workforce in FY2016.

Veterans made up 31.1 percent of the federal workforce in FY2016; the previous year veterans made up 30.9 percent of the workforce, according to the latest veteran hiring report from the Office of Personnel Management.

“Federal agencies have used this initiative to meet many of their critical staffing needs while benefiting from the skills, training, and dedication to public service, our nations’ veterans, transitioning service members, and their families, bring to federal civil service,” OPM acting director Kathleen McGettigan wrote in the report.

veteran

veteran

**Images courtesy of Federal News Radio

Agencies hired 71,304 new veterans to positions in 2016, compared to 71,867 new hires in 2015. Veterans make up nearly 50 percent of the Defense Departments’ workforce, which is by far the largest of all agencies. Below is the veteran presence at some agencies:

  • The Department of Transportation and Veterans’ Affairs Department with 36.7 percent and 32.8 percent, respectively
  • OPM had the largest leap in veteran hiring between 2015-2016 going from 23.3 percent to 26.4 percent
  • Health and Human Sciences Department had the smallest presence of any major agency, only 7.5 percent of its workforce

Many agencies made noticeable improvements in retaining new veteran hires.

  • NSF improved its veteran retention by 10 percent between 2015-2016
  • NASA kept 85.1 percent of its new veteran hires in 2016 compared to 73.2 percent during the previous year
  • The Labor Department also improved its veteran retention rate from 69.9 percent in 2015 to close to 79 percent in 2016
  • 13 other agencies also improved their veteran retention rates

Most veterans, 45 percent, hold admin jobs in the federal workforce.

OPM’s director of veterans’ services, Hakeem Basheerud-Deen said that 2016 was encouraging. He said, “We remain committed to offering opportunities for federal agencies to learn about benefits of making skillful use of the veteran hiring authorities to meet hiring needs. We will also continue to provide federal agencies with suggestions for best practices, such as the benefits of continuous feedback from individuals actively engaged in the veteran hiring process and how such engagement will help the initiative to continually evolve to meet the needs of federal agencies and veterans.”

Veteran hiring has improved overall since 2009 when President Obama signed an executive order establishing a program to help agencies find ways to utilize veterans’ talents.

Veteran vs. Non-Veteran Pay

Even though the federal government employed close to 12,000 more veterans in FY2016 than it did 2015, vets still earned significantly less than non-vets, according to OPM. The Executive Branch employed more than 635,000 vets in FY2016, but they earned, on average, $11,000 less than non-vets employed by the government. Non-vets working full-time federal jobs took home an average of $86,746 in FY2016, while full-time veterans made an average of $75,707. This pay gap remained roughly the same from FY2015.

Differences in job type could account for the pay difference. Non-veterans are more likely to hold professional positions than vets. About 45 percent of vets held administrative positions compared to 37 percent of the overall federal workforce. Fourteen percent of vets also held blue collar jobs, contrary to only about 8 percent of federal employees in the overall federal workforce.

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Blended Retirement System for Military Members

blended

previous blog introduced you to a new retirement system for military members. Now, there is more information on that system and how it will affect service members.

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, the agency that administers the Thrift Savings Plan, has been working with military services to train eligible service members on their options. The FRTIB proposed rule on September 11, 2017, gave more specific details about implementing the new blended retirement system (BRS) along with who is eligible and when they’ll receive their first contributions.

The new plan moves military members from a retirement relying on a vested defined benefit plan to one that includes a reduced benefit plan with greater TSP benefits, the continuation of pay, and come lump sum options.

The new BRS incorporates four major changes to the current military retirement system

First, employing military services will contribute 1 percent of service members monthly pay to their TSP account. These contributions are in addition to basic pay. The military services will continue to contribute whether members contribute on their own.

Second, service members will be automatically enrolled to contribute 3 percent of their basic pay. The program will re-enroll them annually if service members stop making contributions.

Third, military employers will match TSP contributions from their service members dollar for dollar for the first 3 percent of their basic pay and 50 cents on the dollar for the next 2 percent.

Fourth, the program will invest employee contributions in an age-appropriate lifecycle (L) fund rather than the government securities (G) fund—unless otherwise chosen by the member.

Two groups will be eligible to participate in this new system:

  • Service members who enter the military on or after January 1, 2018
  • Military members with 12 years of service or fewer who decide to opt into BRS

Individual services determine which military members are eligible. Reservists who have less than 4,320 retirement points before December 31, 2017, may also be eligible. (Click here to learn more about retirement points)

To learn more about this new system, click below.

 

More on the Blended Retirement System for Military Members

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ATF–History of the Badges

atf

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has had many badges over their history. Here’s a look at how the ATF badges have evolved.

atfOffice of Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Department of Treasury, 1791-1919

The ATF law enforcement legacy began in 1791 when the first tax on whiskey passed under President George Washington. ATF’s legacy evolved under the U.S. Department of Treasury, first as part of the Office of Commissioner of Internal Revenue and then with the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Today’s ATF Special Agents and Investigators are directly descended from the earliest Internal Revenue Collectors, Deputy Collectors, Assessors, Gougers, Store keeps, and Inspectors. This star badge is believed to be the original issue of that era.

atfProhibition Unit, Bureau of Internal Revenue, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1920-1926

On January 19, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition led to underground distilleries and saloons supplying bootlegged liquor. This prompted the U.S. Department of Treasury to strengthen its law enforcement capabilities. Eliot Ness emerged on the scene as a temporary Prohibition Agent.

atfBureau of Prohibition, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1927-1930

In 1927, the Prohibition Unit was reorganized into the separate and distinct Bureau of U.S. Department of Treasury. As criminals gained control over the illegal liquor industry, a new mission of the Bureau emerged; crime fighting.

atfBureau of Prohibition, U.S. Department of Justice, 1930-1933

By 1930, the crime fighting mission began conflicting with the Treasury Departments’ philosophy of voluntary compliance with the laws. Crime fighting was transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Treasury Department created the Bureau of Industrial Alcohol to carry out its remaining regulatory functions.

In 1933, the 21st Amendment ended prohibition. The Bureau of Prohibition and Alcoholic Beverage Unit were dismantled. President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order consolidating any federal agencies enforcing and regulating the liquor industry into one entity. That new entity became the Alcohol Tax Unit (ATU) of the Internal Revenue Service.

atfAlcohol Tax Unit, Bureau of Internal Revenue, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1934-1951

There was still an illegal liquor problem in the country during this time. ATU seized many plants in the first few months of their existence. ATU managed to dismantle large liquor syndicated and the attitudes of prosecutors, judges, and courts began to change.

atfAlcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1952-1967

In 1952, the IRS consolidated enforcement responsibilities of alcohol and tobacco under one unit known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division. Moonshine production became a problem and moonshine related deaths became widespread.

atfAlcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1968-1971

Investigations of firearms and explosives-related crimes and regulation of those industries became a high priority within the U.S. Department of Treasury. Congress delegated the enforcement of laws and regulations to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division, which had expanded responsibilities in firearms. Therefore, it became known as the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Division.

atfBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1972-2002

ATF became an independent bureau on July 1, 1972, and reported directly to the Treasury Department’s Office of Enforcement, Tariff and Trade Affairs, and Operations. Responsibilities changes with ATF, moving from primarily the investigation of illicit alcohol, to crimes involving firearms, explosives, and arson.

atfBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Department of Justice. 2003-Present

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred law enforcement responsibilities of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms with the Treasury Department to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives with the U.S. Department of Justice.

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New VA Disability “Improvement” Law Actually Decreases Assistance

assistance

Despite the title, when President Trump signed the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act at the end of August, some important assistance evaporated.  In the past, when filing a claim for VA disability compensation, the VA was obligated to help the veteran locate documents pertaining to his service or medical records to help him prove his disability is connected to his military service.

For example, a veteran could tell the VA approximately which dates a particular incident occurred, and the VA was obligated to procure the pertinent documents that might link the disability to his service (think the deck logs of a certain vessel).  This was known as the VA’s “duty to assist,” and it was a great resource for veterans since obtaining these kinds of documents can be difficult, time-consuming and costly. This duty was consistent with the general orientation that the VA is required to have toward vets (i.e., accommodating and helpful).

But this provision has now changed at a crucial point in the process; veterans can still take advantage of the duty to assist at the initial claim phase, but that obligation on the VA disappears after an initial ratings decision has been rendered. Because Veterans aren’t allowed to pay counsel for representation during the initial claim phase, it’s predictable that most veterans will overlook this important assistance until it is too late.

If a veteran wishes to appeal the partial or complete denial of his or her claim—at the time he or she can retain paid counsel—he or she will have to do so without the records help of the VA. If certain documents were not procured and the veteran is sure they do exist, then he or she will have to independently find them.

As with most political arguments, what can be alleged to be helpful can, in practice, be counterproductive; in this case, that is decreasing the number of approvals of VA disability claims.  The justification here is that now VA employees will be spending less time looking for substantiating documents on behalf of veterans and have more time for processing appeals.

This new development in the appeals process has been criticized by some organizations. For example, the Vietnam Veterans of America recently said, “It hardly seems like a pro-veteran system where an adjudicatory body knows of possible helpful information for a claimant but is not able to act on this knowledge in a helpful way to the veteran.”

What is your takeaway from this news?  Be sure to insist on VA assistance in locating documents pertaining to your military service and medical records when you file your initial claim for VA disability benefits— before you lose your right to request that assistance.

This article was written by Brad Harris, Attorney at Law, of the Harris Federal Law Firm.  He can be reached at brad@harrisfederal.com or toll-free at (877) 226-2723.  

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Options to Change FERS

contributions

The federal government spent $91 billion on retirement benefits for civilian employees in 2016 alone.

  • $70 billion for CSRS pensions for civilian retirees and their survivors
  • $13 billion for FERS pensions for civilian retirees and their survivors
  • $8 billion for TSP contributions

These expenses were partially offset by $3 billion in revenue from employee contributions to CSRS/FERS pension plans.

The national debt is close to $20 trillion and continues to rise. Because of this, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to consider changing the federal retirement system for potential savings. Under the current system, the governments’ net expenses for federal civilian retirement systems are projected to grow by an average of 2.8 percent annually between 2018-2027.

Retirement Options for FERS

The report from the CBO examines how changing FERS would affect federal government spending in the long term.

Option 1

This option would modify the FERS pension plan by changing employee contributions to the plan. It would increase the FERS contribution rate to 4.4 percent for current employees (from 0.8 percent for employees hired before 2013 and from 3.1 percent for employees hired in 2013).

Option 2

This option would decrease pension contributions for some employees with larger contributions from the government to employee TSP accounts. CBO describes this change similar to the shifts over recent decades from defined benefit to defined contribution retirement plans in many private sector companies and state governments.

It would decrease the FERS contribution rate to 0.8 percent for all employees (from 4.4 percent for employees hired after 2013 and from 3.1 percent for employees hired in 2013). This option may help in recruiting new federal employees and retaining current employees, however, it would increase the federal government’s net retirement costs by 10 percent over the next 10 years.

Option 3

Option 3 would change the current pension formula from calculations based on the High-3 salary to a High-5. This would decrease FERS pensions by basing the retirement benefit on 5 years of the highest salary. It would also decrease the government’s cost by one percent over the next 10 years.

Option 4

This option would eliminate the FERS pension and increase the government’s automatic TSP contribution to 8 percent salary. It would also require the government to match employee contributions up to an additional 7 percent.

Option 5

Option 5 would eliminate the FERS pension, increase the government’s automatic TSP contribution to 10 percent of salary and eliminate the governments’ matching contributions. This option would potentially have the biggest long-term savings for the government.

Most of these proposals would have a greater impact on new employees than those who are already employees.

There’s also no guarantee that Congress will adopt these changes.

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Agency Spotlight–Eliot Ness

agents

Eliot Ness is one of the most famous federal agents in the history of law enforcement. He and his team, the Untouchables, broke organized crime in Chicago, which was dubbed the “crime capital of the world”. They put away famous criminals and gangsters, including Al Capone and became so well known that a comic strip was based on their stories, and the famous character Dick Tracy was born.

He entered service in 1926, and by that time three of the Treasury Departments six law enforcement arms—Prohibition Unit, Coast Guard, and Customs—were working together, sharing information, and conducting joint operations against the organized crime threat.

During his 10 years with ATF, Ness demonstrated he possessed intelligence, ability, honesty, and integrity. After cleaning up Chicago, he went on to clean up two other cities with corrupt law enforcement agencies; Cleveland and Cincinnati. He resigned after 10 years and became the Cleveland Public Safety Director. Criminals completely controlled the liquor industry. Assassinations, bombs, bullets, and corruption were routine. Bootleggers and gangsters who forged close ties with local authorities were common. Chicago was one of those cities.

agentsNess’ Chicago Assignment

Al Capone all but owned Chicago. The collective force of 3,000 police officers and 300 prohibition agents couldn’t bring down his empire. 1930 brought two major events that not only changed the course of Ness’ career but also redirected the federal law enforcement trajectory; ATF’s legacy in particular.

  • The first was the Bureau of Prohibition was transferred from the U.S Department of Treasury to the U.S. Department of Justice. Their mission increasingly focused on fighting violent crime.
  • The Second was President Herbert Hoover declared war against Capone. It set into motion a two-armed investigative attack on Capone. One led by the Bureau of Prohibition Investigative Division Special Agent Eliot Ness—ordered to cripple Capone’s operations and gather evidence of prohibition violations. The second led by lawmen Elmer Irey and Frank Wilson of the Internal Revenue Service. They investigated Capone’s finances for evidence of money laundering and tax evasion.

The team damaged Capone’s organization and it led to the indictment of Al Capone on over 5,000 prohibition violations under the Volstead Act. They also went on to successfully apprehend many of Chicago’s notorious gangsters and bootleggers.

agentsCincinnati and Cleveland Assignments

In September 1933, Ness transferred from Chicago to Cincinnati as a Sr. Investigator. Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, and the Bureau of Prohibition was reorganized as the Alcohol Beverage Unit briefly before being transferred back to the Treasury Department as the Alcohol Tax Unit.

ATU faced many challenges. The country wasn’t prepared to re-establish the legal liquor industry because criminals continued to illegally produce and distribute distilled spirits. Organized crime once again rose. ATU seized many alcohol distilleries in the first few months after its creation. They managed to bring down large liquor syndicates, changing the perception of federal law enforcement, as well as the attitudes of prosecutors, juries, and courts.

agentsIn December 1934, Cleveland had a need for a lawman like Eliot Ness. The city was infested with so much crime and corruption that it earned a reputation as an untamed town. He was 31 years old when he arrived as the Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Treasury’s ATU in the northern district of Ohio. Thirty-four agents were under his command and they tracked down, raided, and destroyed a string of illegal liquor operations, earning a reputation of taking down a still a day.

Ness would serve as Investigator in Charge of the Cleveland Office of ATU until January 1, 1936, when he resigned to become the Cleveland Public Safety Director. His new position put him in charge of police and fire departments where he successfully headed a campaign to clean up corruption and modernize both service institutions.

Today, Eliot Ness symbolizes that no matter how challenging the times, circumstances, or mission, the badge continues to represent the tradition of “untouchable” honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior for those who serve and protect.

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Minority Hiring Initiative

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Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, plans to launch a new initiative to improve diversity in foreign service. This includes a requirement that at least one minority candidate be considered for all ambassadorial positions.

He noted there was a significant gap between the racial makeup of the State Department and the American population. “We have a great diversity gap in the State Department. We need a State Department that reflects the American people, reflects who we are. The State Department must redouble our efforts to increase diversity at the highest ranks of the department, including at the ambassador level,” Tillerson said.

About 12 percent of senior Foreign Service officers are people of color, and that is “about the same” for the agency’s senior executive service contingent.

Tillerson has instructed staff that at least one minority must be considered and interviewed for every open ambassador position.

State Department Press Secretary, Heather Nauert said even if this plan doesn’t produce immediate results, it will advance the agency’s diversity goals in the future. “When we look at ambassadorial candidates, when we look at that pool, we want a minority represented in those interviews, to be interviewed for the job. And if they’re not ready for that position yet, that gives us the opportunity to know who they are and put them on our radar. And it helps us get them ready for the future,” she said.

Tillerson also announced he will retain “all of our fellowship and internship programs”. He plans to boost the agency’s recruitment efforts at college campuses, particularly historically black colleges, and universities.

He said, “While our diplomats in residence at Howard, Spellman, Morehouse, and Florida A&M do an outstanding job ensuring that people understand the opportunities at the State Department, there are more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, and there’s so much more we can do to raise awareness about the range of careers at State. We also want to expand our footprint at minority-focused job fairs, and we can do more to recruit from one of the most diverse and proven talent pools, as I mentioned: our U.S. Military.”

Nauert said she didn’t have a timeframe for when the agency will begin ramping up its recruitment efforts, but she did say the initiative is “important to the secretary”.

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