Monthly Archives: April 2017

Agency Spotlight–BOP Worker Injuries

bop

To conclude our series on the Bureau of Prisons, we’ll look at common ways a BOP worker can get injured. The work BOP employees do is dangerous, particularly their work environments. The nature of their job puts them at a significant risk for intentional violent injuries. “Institutional factors” such as inmate overcrowding, inadequate officer training, inmate gangs, and staffing shortages also contribute to this risk. Below are some ways a BOP employee may get injured, or even develop an illness from their position.

Violence

Violence from inmates is a huge threat to BOP officers. Unfortunately, this is one of the leading causes of injury, or worse, to BOP workers. Correction Officers are often required to work alone, late at night, have close contact with inmates, and sometimes, work unarmed. Restraining an inmate or breaking up a fight can result in physical and even psychological harm. The more obvious is physical harm; being attacked, falling or tripping trying to subdue the attacker, and nerve damage are all common. The psychological harm may not be as obvious, but it can be just as debilitating.

Work-Related Stress

Recent years have brought increasing job demands due to the rapidly increasing prison population, staffing shortages, and a high-turnover rate. Because of this, work-related stress and mental health are a big focus. Factors such as shift work, job dissatisfaction, closed work environment, and pressure of dealing with incarcerated criminals can lead to frustration, anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders.

Transportation

Transportation-related injuries/fatalities are just as prevalent as intentional ones that happen in the BOP facilities. Correctional officers transport inmates to and from correctional facilities, hospitals, and court appearances. Seatbelt use, fatigue, and unsafe driving speeds all can contribute to these types of injuries.

Employees in the BOP are required to be in their best physical condition possible. If not, they can get pulled from duty and sometimes, put in administrative roles or placed on modified duty. By not being physically fit for duty, they are putting not only themselves but their coworkers and even inmates at risk. In fact, to ensure that every BOP employee (every position including cooks, nurses, officers, and chaplains) is fully fit for duty, they have an “8-point letter”. Because “all positions located in correctional institutions are hazardous duty law enforcement officer positions”, employees are required to be alert and able to respond effectively to emergencies always. An employee must pass all of conditions and requirements laid out in the letter, which include seeing a human figure from a fourth of a mile, ability to perform self-defense movements, the ability to smell smoke and drugs, and much more.

We Can Help

At any given moment, something terrible can happen and leave a BOP employee with a permanent injury or symptoms that affect their ability to perform their job. We have had clients from the BOP (Correction Officers, Registered Nurses, Cook Supervisors, Correction Counselors, and Supervisory Correctional Officer lieutenants) who have been approved for conditions ranging from cervicalgia, cervical spine disk rupture, meniscus maceration, fibromyalgia, depression, sciatic nerve injury, and more.

If you are a BOP worker and have been injured or developed an illness while employed in your position, and can no longer perform all your job duties, please give us a call at 877-226-2723. We can schedule a FREE consultation and discuss the specifics of your case. You can also fill out this INQUIRY form.

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President Trump Signs New Veteran’s Choice Act

choice

President Trump has signed the Veterans Choice Improvement Act. It will greatly expand an existing program at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Key Changes

This new bill will make the following changes to veterans’ care:

  • Allows patients to seek care from private doctors if they want to go outside of the VA system
  • Removes barriers that Congress put in the original “choice “initiative
  • Eliminates the expiration date of the law that would have closed the program in August 2017
  • Makes VA the primary payer (currently they’re the secondary payer) for medical care relating to non-service connected disabilities and recovery of costs from third parties for certain care under the program

The Choice program was created in 2014 by Congress because of the VA scandal involving wait time maneuvering at some VA facilities around the country. Initially, the Choice program was set up as a pilot program limiting when and where veterans could elect to use private doctors. Patients could only use this program if they lived more than 40 miles away from the nearest VA hospital or if they could not get an appointment from their local VA facility within 30 days.

The Concerned Veterans for America said the following, “President Trump is upholding the promises he made to veterans and we applaud him for continuing to make them a priority. However, there is more work to do. The Choice program passed as a quick fix to the wait list manipulation scandal that broke 3 years, has helped, however, too many veterans still are forced to seek care at failing VA facilities. Congress now has some time to work with Secretary Shulkin on broader, more permanent Choice reforms that will truly put the veteran at the center of their health care and remove VA bureaucrats as the middlemen.”

Congress established the Commission on Care to examine veterans access to Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare and to examine how to efficiently organize the Veterans Health Administration, locate health resources, and deliver healthcare to veterans. It recommended providing more private sector services for veterans beyond restrictions placed in the original Choice Act. This new legislation seems to do that to some degree.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has generally opposed this type of change in the VA. They have stated, “…..given the evidence of overall quality, efficiency, integration, and innovation with the VHA, we believe that efforts to reform the VHA can best serve veterans by expanding access to services the VHA currently provides. Where geographic challenges exist and/or VHA doesn’t offer specific services, the VHA should purchase services from non-VA partners.”

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Early Buyouts and Retirements at the EPA

buyoutsIn the wake of President Donald Trump’s government reorganization directive, the Environmental Protection Agency is offering early buyouts and retirements. The EPA Acting Deputy Administrator Michael Flynn said they want to complete the early out program by June 30th.

“The OMB guidance…requires all agencies to begin taking immediate actions on near-term workforce reductions,” Flynn said. “In light of this guidance, we will begin the steps necessary to initiate an early out/buyout (VERA/VSIP) program.”

What is a Buyout?

So, what is a buyout? Agencies can offer up to $25,000 to employees who have worked in the federal government at least three years through a Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment and allow employees not otherwise eligible for retirement benefits to receive them through Voluntary Early Retirement Authority. This payment is taxed. Any employee accepting a buyout must leave by a specific date. Another condition is that employee can’t return to federal employment within five years unless they repaid the entire, pretax buyout amount. OPM must approve all early out and buyout programs. OMB said OPM would “provide expedited reviews for most VERA/VSIP requests within 30 days.

While most agencies have ended their hiring freeze, the EPA is not one of them. “Given our resource situation, we will continue a freeze on external hiring. Very limited exceptions to this external hiring freeze may be permitted on a case-by-case basis with approving by the Acting Deputy Administrator,” Flynn said.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the government has an average retirement eligibility of 34 percent. The EPA is close to 45 percent.

Budget Cuts

The White House proposed a $5.7 billion budget for the EPA in FY2018, a 31 percent cut from 2017. This cut would force the agency to eliminate nearly 4,000 full-time employees and at least 50 independent programs in 2018. They have had significant spending cuts in recent years, with its spending level already cut by more than 20 percent since 2010; the EPA last offered separation incentives in 2014, paying a total of $16.2 million to 456 employees to leave the agency that year.

John O’Grady, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 238 (which specifically represents EPA employees) said, “If the administration was interested in realigning the U.S. EPA, it would first conduct a thorough workforce and workload analysis.” The U.S. EPA Office of Inspector General and GAO have pointed this out year after year. “However, they will not do this because it would tell them that the agency is woefully underfunded and understaffed today. Any further cuts will absolutely cripple the agency.”

David Bloom, EPA’s acting Chief Financial Officer said, “The agency will continue to seek opportunities to reduce further our facility footprint and/or implement planned and pending moves in an expedited and cost-effective manner.”

The reorganization directive charges departments to submit a plan to OMB on how they will maximize employee performance. Plans will focus on reviewing/updating agency policy around limiting the use of paid administrative leave and using performance improvement plans to address poor performing employees.

By June 30, OMB will meet with agencies to review their high-level draft of their agency reform plans. Final reform plans are due to OMB by September as part of the 2019 budget proposal.

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Agency Spotlight–Bonuses Paid to BOP Executives

bonuses

According to government records and documents, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons paid more than $2 million in bonuses to top executives and wardens during the past three years. This comes during a time when the agency is dealing with persistent overcrowding, sub-par inmate medical care, chronic staffing shortages and a sexual harassment lawsuit at its largest institution.

The bulk of the payments, close to $1 million, were approved in 2016 and amounted to almost double the combined amounts the previous years. Many of the agency’s top execs who received payments last year also received similar awards in 2015. Among them were four execs who held leadership roles at the agency’s largest complex, amidst a sexual harassment lawsuit.

A $20 million settlement of legal action is currently pending before a federal judge.

Sandra Parr, VP of the national union of prison workers said, “These people get bonuses off the backs of people who were actually dealing with the predators.” She went on to say that the pool of victims grew so large because top agency officials “chose to ignore it”.

Bureau spokesman Justin Long acknowledged the bonus payments, saying the awards were authorized under OPM guidelines.

The timing of the payments come while the bureau operations have been the focus of critical examinations by the Justice Department’s Inspector General for more than a year. In 2016, the IG found prison authorities were struggling to provide proper medical care to thousands of inmates because of persistent staffing shortages. These problems left some institutions with vacancy rates of 40 percent or higher. A former BOP official told government auditors that medical staffing vacancies had reached “crisis level” at some facilities. This official also said the agency had been increasingly unable to compete with the private sector in recruiting medical professionals to provide necessary healthcare.

The staffing shortages, according to a USA TODAY report, are forcing nurses, physical therapists, and other senior medical staffers to fill gaps on guard duty and other security related shifts. Many reassigned medical staffers are being drawn from the U.S. Public Health Service and have little or no experience providing security in the overcrowded federal system. The agency acknowledges this and calls it “augmentation”, saying that “adequately staffing custody posts is critical”.

Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration criticized prison conditions in Miami, recommending a “hazard alert” notice saying incidents of violence had been prevalent during contraband searches of inmates who were under the influence of illegal drugs.

Joe Rojas, a local union official who has battled with prison administrators on work conditions, says there is “no doubt” that top leaders at the prison knew about the sexually-charged environment, including those awarded bonuses for their work.

“They were aware of the information and they chose to ignore it,” he said. “These guys got bonuses like clockwork and there is no justification for it.”

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Crossings at the Southern Border are at a Low Point

border

Across the southwest border, the number of immigrants caught crossing into the United States illegally has dropped dramatically. March saw less than 12,200 people caught. That’s a 64 percent decrease from last year, and the lowest monthly number in 17 years.

Rio Grande Valley is ground zero (since 2014) for asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution in Central America. The number of families and unaccompanied children caught entering the U.S. has decreased from 291 per day in January to 37 per day in March.

There are many factors to consider in this drop. They include President Trump’s aggressive stance on securing the border, heightened security on Mexico’s southern border and a rise in smuggling fees.

Marlene Castro, a supervisory Border Patrol, has worked for Customs and Border Protection for almost 20 years. She insists agents aren’t doing anything differently, and the Trump administration executive orders are enforcing laws already on the books.

An associate professor of public affairs and security studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley says, “There’s a perception that it’s going to be very difficult for immigrants to cross into the U.S and stay in the U.S. It makes them think twice because the commitment is too big”. Many immigrants are now calculating whether it’s worth paying smugglers as much as $7,000-$11,000 to lead them on dangerous routes.

The decline in numbers is a good thing, but many agree it’s too early to detect a long-term pattern. “People might be biding their time and putting off a journey for a few months,” said a policy analyst at the Migration Policy institute. The number of immigrants crossing the border has dropped from 1.6 million in 2000 to 415,000 in 2016.

More than 3,000 Border Patrol agents already monitor the Rio Grande Valley sectors 315-mile border. Manual Padilla, Chief of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, wants to see something like what transformed California, Arizona, and New Mexico. “We need the wall—or wall and fence combo, whatever that ends up looking like—to stop the people from coming over. People will say ‘Well, it doesn’t stop people’. But it slows them down in order for us to be able to respond.”

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It’s Never to Early to Start Retirement Planning–Part 3

planning

Planning for retirement should begin as early as possible. It’s literally never too early. Knowing the deadlines and requirements will greatly reduce stress as you move into this phase of your life. Contributing to a Thrift Savings Plan as early as possible is especially important; however, there are also other things to consider such as life insurance, health coverage, service history, and more.

This three-part blog series will look at retirement planning five years out, one year out, and the process of applying.

Process of Applying

Once you’ve picked a date for retirement, ensured all your service dates are correct, and elected survivor benefits, it’s time to start the process of applying for retirement.

If you are still working, you will submit your application to your employer. If you have been separated for more than 30 days, your application will go directly to OPM.

Both your personnel and payroll office in your agency are responsible for processing your application.

Personnel Office Process

  • They will complete the “Agency Checklist for Immediate Retirement Procedures” (Standard Form 2801, Schedule D for CSRS and Standard Form 3107, Schedule D for FERS).
  • Prepare and obtain your signature on the “Certified Summary of Federal Service” (SF 2801-1 for CSRS or SF 3107-1 for FERS).
  • Verify any service not fully documented in your Official Personnel Folder. If your personnel office is unable to verify, OPM will do so, but this could create delays in processing.
  • Certify and transfer your coverage under Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance to OPM.
  • Transfer enrollment under Federal Employees’ Health Benefits program to OPM.
  • Prepare SF 50, “Notification of Personnel Action”.
  • Send all retirement materials to your payroll office.

Payroll Office Process

  • Authorize final paycheck and lump sum payment for unused annual leave.
  • Prepares your “Individual Retirement Record”, SF 2806 for CSRS or 3100 for FERS, which reflects service, salary history, and annual retirement contributions.
  • Forwards all retirement documents to OPM.

OPM Process

When OPM receives your application, they will notify you and provide you with a 7-digit civil service claim number.

  • They obtain any missing information from your retirement documents.
  • Determine your eligibility for annuity and continued health and life insurance coverage.
  • Computes the amount of your annuity.
  • Sends you materials concerning survivor benefit election, an alternative form of annuity, rollover to an IRA, and if you are a FERS MRA+10 retiree, your annuity start date.
  • Authorizes your annuity payment which is paid by the Department of Treasury.
  • Sends you an annuity statement.

OPM could take months to process your retirement application so be sure it’s correct before sending. If they must contact you regarding elections or missing information, this will cause delays in an already lengthy process.

In the event that an injury or illness affects your job duties and you can no longer work, you may be eligible for a federal disability retirement. Of course, there is no way to plan for this happening, however knowing your options should this arise can help you plan for your next steps. Our team at Harris Federal Law Firm can help you if you find yourself in a situation like this. Please give us a call at 877-226-2723 or fill out this inquiry form for a FREE consultation.

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100,000 Student Financial Aid Applicants Notified of Possible Identity Theft

identity

The IRS is sending out 100,000 notification letters to student financial aid applicants who might be tax ID victims.

IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, told members of the Senate Finance Committee that 35,000 letter were on their way to people advising them their tax information may be at risk thanks to a “convenience app” that populates their student loan application with tax data.

On April 6, Koskinen released a statement:

“Our position has been, as we’ve been working with [the Department of Education], we can’t confidently distinguish the smaller part of that pool or the part of the pool that had their data stolen from those that may have had their data stolen. So out of an abundance of caution, we’re going to notify all 100,000. We marked all 100,000 accounts, so whenever a return is filed, they’ll be protected, but while…we don’t want to unnecessarily worry people, we will advise everyone that there’s been some indication that they may be at risk.”

Koskinen also said that IRS filters have stopped 52,000 tax returns related to the 100,000 accounts and about 14,000 were identified as illegal returns and never left the agency. However, 8,000 returns worth $30 million were submitted and approved.

The Education Department is working on a solution for the issue but it won’t be available until October 2017. In the meantime, the data retrieval tool remains shut down and applicants must manually enter their tax information.

The IRS added another additional layer of security after last years’ attack on the Electronic Filing PIN application. Now, taxpayers must enter their adjusted gross income from the previous year when filing their return.

Koskinen also shared that they are waiting to hear back from the Office of Management and Budget on hiring freeze exemptions. He spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, DC and told the audience that the agency must be efficient but after 7 years of budget cuts, it’s taking its toll on customer service and cyber security.

A Call for New Leadership

More than 50 House Republicans, earlier this month, signed two letters to President Trump calling for Koskinen’s removal. Fifteen Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee also sent a letter to President Trump calling for Koskinen’s removal citing destruction of evidence, misleading Congress and “intentionally [degrading] customer service at the IRS”. The letter stated, “As we work to reform the tax code and restructure the IRS, we must ensure that the agency has the tools it needs to accomplish the tasks at hand and to achieve a smooth transition. During this transition, the IRS would benefit immeasurably from new leadership and regain the trust of the American people, the committee believes that we must have a new commissioner appointed as soon as possible.”

This isn’t the first time that lawmakers have wanted him removed. Koskinen plans to work out the remainder of his term, which ends in November.

Read more about this story below.

IRS Notifies 100,000 Financial Aid Applicants About Possible Identity Theft

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New Legislation Could Expand TSP Withdrawal Options

withdrawal

The TSP Modernization Act, introduced by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-RI), could allow for more flexible withdrawal options. One of the primary goals of the bill is to encourage federal workers to leave their savings in their TSP after leaving federal service because of its low fees.

In a press release, Senator Portman calls the current withdrawal rules “overly restrictive” and says the rules are almost forcing federal workers to transfer their retirement accounts to ones with higher fees. This new legislation would make four changes, outlined below.

Age-Based Withdrawals While in Service

Currently, the TSP rules only allow for one age-based withdrawal while employed. This new bill would allow for multiple age-based withdrawals and subsequent post-separation withdrawals.

Partial Post Separation Withdrawals

Now, the rules allow for one partial post-separation withdrawal and none for those who made an in-service age-based withdrawal. And after these, only full withdrawal options are available. However, this new bill would add some individual flexibility by allowing multiple partial post-separation withdrawals.

Full Withdrawal via Periodic Payments

Currently, periodic payments can only be selected in monthly intervals. Also, the payment can be adjusted only once per year and must occur just prior to the beginning of the next calendar year. These payments can be reduced to as low as $25/month but recurring payments can’t be stopped unless a participant withdrawals the entire remaining balance. Those enrolled in periodic payments status can’t elect a partial withdrawal or annuity purchase.

Eliminate Withdrawal Election Deadline

This bill would eliminate this deadline which currently requires TSP participants to make a post-separation withdrawal election by April 1st of the year following the year in which they turn 70 ½ and are separated from federal service. This is separate from the IRS requirements to begin distributing RMD’s on the same day.

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB), who administers the TSP, supports this new bill. The Executive Director said, “We are very appreciative of Senators Portman and Carpers’ leadership on this important issue. Enactment of this legislation will meaningfully improve TSP participants’ ability to responsibly access their retirement savings.”

Learn more about these changes by clicking below.

TSP Withdrawals Could be Expanded with New Legislation

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Special Deductions for Each Retirement Type

deductions

Under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), there are four types of retirement; voluntary, early, deferred, and disability. Previous posts in the series have looked at the eligibility requirements, annuity computation, and special provisions for each. This post will focus on special deductions for each.

Non-Disability Retirement—Voluntary, Early, and Deferred

Age

If you have 10 or more years of service and retire at the Minimum Retirement Age (MRA), your benefit will be reduced by 5/12 of 1% for each full month (5% per year) that you were under age 62 unless

  • you complete at least 30 years of service,
  • or if you complete at least 20 years of service and your annuity begins when you reach age 60.

Survivor Benefits

If you are married, your benefit will be reduced for a survivor benefit, unless your spouse consented to your election of less than a full survivor annuity. Electing a full survivor benefit will equal 50 percent of your benefit, and your annuity will be reduced by 10 percent. If you elect a partial survivor benefit, which equals 25 percent of your benefit, your annuity is reduced by 5 percent.

Unpaid or Refunded Service

If you have a CSRS component to your annuity, the CSRS portion will be reduced by 10 percent of any deposit owed for the CSRS non-deduction service performed before October 1, 1982, unless the deposit was made before retirement.

Alternative Annuity

Your benefit may be reduced if you elected a lump sum payment equal to your retirement contributions and a reduced monthly annuity. However, only non-disability annuitants who have a life-threatening condition can elect this option.

Disability Retirement

Survivor Benefits

This reduction is the same as the non-disability survivor benefits.

Unpaid Service if “Earned” Annuity is Paid

If you have a CSRS component in your annuity, the CSRS portion will be reduced by 10 percent of any deposit owed for CSRS non-deduction service performed before October 1, 1982, unless the deposit was paid before retirement.

Cost of Living Adjustments

Your annuity will be increased for COLA’s if you(r):

  • Are over the age of 62.
  • Retired under special provisions for Air Traffic Controllers, Law Enforcement personnel, or Firefighters.
  • Retired on disability, except during the first year when you are receiving 60 percent of your High-3 salary.
  • Retirement included a portion computed under CSRS rules.

Social Security

If you retire on a disability retirement, your annuity may be subject to social security deductions. During the first year receiving your annuity, your benefit will be reduced by 100 percent of any social security deductions. During the second year, and every year after, your benefit will be reduced by 60 percent of social security.

Be sure to check out more information on these here.

Harris Federal Law Firm has helped thousands of federal workers with their disability cases. If you think you may qualify, please give us a call at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form. We would love to schedule a FREE consultation with you and discuss the specifics of your case.

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It’s Never Too Early to Start Retirement Planning-Part 2

retirement

Planning for retirement should begin as early as possible. It’s literally never too early. Knowing the deadlines and requirements will greatly reduce stress as you move into this phase of your life. Contributing to a Thrift Savings Plan as early as possible is especially important; however, there are also other things to consider such as life insurance, health coverage, service history, and more.

This three-part blog series will look at retirement planning five years out, one year out, and the process of applying.

One Year Before Retirement

By this point, you should have a firm idea of what your eligibility requirements are for retiring. Being just a year away from retirement is a great time to verify information and documentation.

  • Confirm your eligibility for a retirement benefit.
  • Pick a date.
  • Get information about other benefits you may be eligible for such as a Thrift Savings Plan.
  • Tell your supervisor about your proposed date.
  • Attend a pre-retirement counseling seminar.
  • Make an appointment with your personnel officer to review your Official Personnel Folder so that you can ensure all records are complete and accurate, all service is verified and insurance coverage is documented.

When you check your Personnel Folder, be sure to look for the following:

  • Beginning and end dates for each period of employment. This is used to compute your annuity benefit.
  • Effective dates for each promotion or within-grade increases. This is used to compute your High-3 salary.
  • Dates of pay changes or earnings in pay rate during employment periods when retirement deductions weren’t withheld from your salary.
  • Tour of duty during any part-time employment.
  • Record of time actually worked during intermittent or “when actually employed” service.
  • Documentation of military service dates.

Other important things to review are:

  • Review your designation of beneficiary.
  • Ensure your records show a complete history of health insurance enrollment for at least five years.
  • You personnel officer should review your election opportunities for survivor benefits. If you don’t provide a monthly benefit, your survivor will not be able to continue coverage under the FEHB program.
  • You can get paid for any unused leave you have left at retirement.

To learn more about what you should do when you’re just a couple away from retiring, click below.

It’s Never Too Early to Begin Planning for Retirement-Part 2

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