Monthly Archives: June 2017

Common Causes of NPS Employee Injuries

injuries

Concluding our agency spotlight on the National Park Service this month, we will look at common causes injuries of NPS workers.

Of the 133+ federal agencies, the NPS consistently has one of the highest injury/fatality rates among its employees, losing 86 employees (Line of Duty/On Duty) in the last 25 years. From 2005-2010, over 3,800 employees were hurt in a way that caused them to miss at least one day of work. It’s not hard to understand why this is the case. Dangerous wildlife and rough, steep terrain contribute to this being a potentially dangerous agency to work for.

Section 1.9.1.4 of the 2006 NPS management policy states “the safety and health of employees, contractors, volunteers, and the public are core service values”. The policy is further defined and requires each NPS employee to:

  1. Adhere to established occupational safety and health procedures.
  2. Work collaboratively with supervisors to develop and use Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) or the equivalent for all routine tasks, and help develop and use site-specific safety plans for non-routine, complex, multi-phase jobs.
  3. Properly use and maintain required clothing and/or personal protective equipment.
  4. Maintain a level of personal wellness and fitness as needed for assigned work tasks.
  5. Identify, and where appropriate, correct unsafe conditions and work practices.
  6. Report unsafe/unhealthful conditions and/or operations to an immediate supervisor or appropriate chain of command.
  7. Report mishaps, including minor accidents and “near misses” ASAP.
  8. Participate in establishing a safe working culture, and practice safe work procedures, even when working alone.

We have helped many NPS employees throughout the years with their federal disability retirements.

Student Trainee—Electro Technician

This employee had 3-level spine neck fusion, cervical myelopathy, and had 25 percent whole person impairment. Their position required them to climb towers and stairs and crouch over in tight spaces to repair electrical systems. Due to these injuries, among others, this person was not able to stand or walk over rough terrain for long periods of time, couldn’t lift radio transmitters or electrical equipment, work in remote locations where there was climbing mountainous terrain, or climb radio towers for inspections and repair.

Chief Park Ranger in Oregon

This person suffered from PTSD, depression, and anxiety. They had a hard time detecting real/perceived threats. This job position requires an employee to serve Law Enforcement Commissioned Rangers. Some responsibilities include performing law enforcement duties to ensure protection and safe use of national park resources, assimilation of state laws, conducting investigations, participate, and assist agencies and law enforcement officers, and perform search and rescue missions. This employee was unable to complete these tasks at an acceptable level.

To read more about how we’ve helped NPS, employees, click below.

Agency Spotlight—Common Injuries of NPS Employees

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This Bill Hopes to Boost Morale at DHS

dhs

The bill, approved by voice vote, aims at boosting low morale at the Department of Homeland Security. It would create an engagement steering committee and a program for non-mandatory employee awards.

The 2017 DHS Morale, Recognition, Learning, and Engagement (MORALE) Act would seek to reverse a job satisfaction problem that has plagued the department for years. DHS usually ranks among the worst places to work in annual employee surveys. Morale dropped 15 percentage points at the department between 2010-2015, the most of any agency with at least 800 employees.

The bill also tasks the department’s chief human capital officer with increasing leadership development, growing employee engagement and designating an employee as the chief learning and engagement officer.

An engagement steering committee would consist of representatives from all components, supervisors, rank-and-file workers, and labor groups to develop morale improvement strategies.

This bill also allows the DHS Secretary John Kelly to launch an annual, non-monetary award program to recognize excellence within the department. “It sends a positive message to the DHS workforce by telling them that their contributions to the DHS mission are valued and they haven’t been forgotten as they endure new stresses and challenges under the Trump administration,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-MS (bill’s author) said. “Given the department’s national security mission and the increasingly scarce availability of resources, it is essential that the DHS workforce is prioritized as they are responsible for carrying out the diverse range of programs that keep our country safe.”

Kelly pledged to remove restrictions that he claimed had taken their toll on employee job satisfaction and appeared to welcome at least one aspect of the Hose-backed bill. “The best way to improve morale is to let employees do the jobs they were hired and trained to do and recognize them for doing it,” he said.

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Hiring Immigration Judges Takes 2 Years

immigration

One of President Trump’s goals was to quickly deport more immigrants that are in this country illegally. However, if the administration is not able to hire on judges more quickly, that goal won’t become a reality.

It currently takes more than 2 years for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to hire new judges, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. This has led to a backlog of more than half a million cases awaiting adjudication, as of October 2016.

Between 2006-2015, the backlog of pending cases has more than doubled. Staffing levels have increased by 17 percent, but EOIR has processed fewer cases each year. The average number of days to reach an initial decision sky-rocketed from 43 days in 2006 to 286 in 2015. The average case in the systems backlog has been sitting for 404 days.

The office has about 1,000 full-time employees across 58 courts across the country. Judges hear testimony from immigrants from immigrants and individuals the Department of Homeland Security has awaiting removal. They also review documentary evidence.

“The effects of the case backlog are significant and wide-ranging, from some respondents waiting years to have their cases heard to immigration judges being able to spend less time considering cases,” GAO said.

Several factors cited for the growing list of unheard cases include an inadequate number of judges, insufficient clerks and support staff, funding shortages, lack of translators, and a surge of complicated cases involving undocumented children in 2014. GAO also partly blamed the FBI’s security clearance process for slow hiring. However, they found that only accounted for 41 days of the more than 740 it took EOIR to fill vacancies between 2011-2016.

Under the Trump administration so far, ICE has arrested 37 percent more immigrants between January 22 and April 29, compared to the same period in 2016, but removals dropped by 12 percent.

Trump’s FY2018 budget calls for 75 more EOIR judges but the agency has remained well below the staffing threshold authorized by Congress for years. ICE acting director Thomas Homan said, “we certainly think” the administration will restore the deportation rate to that under President Obama. “We have more work than we have resources. We could certainly use more resources.”

In January, President Trump issued an executive order to help ICE agents by eliminating restrictions on deportations and prioritized removals. That could get stalled, though, because GAO found EOIR doesn’t have a long-term plan to deal with its staffing issues and the case backlog.

The agency also hasn’t addressed the close to 40 percent of its workforce is currently eligible for retirement and their operational issues causing the significant spike in the number of continuances.

GAO said, “By addressing its hiring process and developing a hiring strategy that targets staffing needs, EOIR would be better positioned to hire judges more quickly and address its staffing gaps.” EOIR officials mostly agreed with GAO’s recommendations and they have taken steps to address them, but the auditors said the agency’s efforts so far have been insufficient.

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What is Accommodation?

accommodation

Question of the Week: What is Accommodation and How Does It Affect Federal Disability Retirement?

A: One of the requirements to qualify for federal disability retirement is your agency must certify it’s unable to accommodate your disabling condition in your present position and that it has considered you for any vacant position in the same agency at the same grade or pay level, within the same commuting area, for which you are qualified for reassignment.

An agency must exhaust all reasonable efforts to help with service deficiencies through accommodation before it advises an employee to seek disability retirement.

So, what is reasonable accommodation?

Accommodation is an adjustment made to a job and/or work environment that enables a qualified handicapped person to perform the duties of that position. Reasonable accommodation applies to both the employees’ current position and to any vacant position to which the employee could be reassigned.

Reasonable accommodations can include, but are not limited to:

  • Modifying work site
  • Adjusting work schedule
  • Restructuring the job
  • Acquiring or modifying equipment and devices
  • Providing interpreters, readers, or personal assistants
  • Reassigning or retraining the employee

If the agency is successful in accommodating the employee after their disability retirement application has been sent to OPM, the agency must immediately notify OPM.

This can be a tricky thing. Here are a few scenarios that DO NOT count as accommodation:

  • Using up sick/annual leave to supplement a FT schedule
  • Taking away of job duties
  • PT work schedules

The next “Question of the Week” post will look at reassignment.

If you are thinking about federal disability retirement and you have questions about accommodation, or you aren’t sure if your agency is doing what they need to, please feel free to contact us. We would love to set up a FREE consultation with you. Give us a call at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form.

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Could Surveying Veterans Improve VA Services?

servicesCongressman Tom Rice (R-SC) wants to conduct a nationwide survey of veterans to find out what they feel needs reforming at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He recently introduced the Survey Our Servicemembers Act, legislation that would establish a nationwide, annual survey of veterans’ experiences receiving health care, both through the Department of Veterans Affairs and non-VA providers.

The bill would require the survey be commissioned by an independent organization to gather information about veteran’s experiences with scheduling appointments, wait times, the cost of care, and overall quality of care received.  It’s based on a survey that his office conducted earlier this year.

Below are some findings from his survey.

Obtaining Health Care

  • 82 percent of veterans received care at non-VA facilities in the last 2 years.
  • More than 70 percent of respondent’s rated travel time to a healthcare facility as either extremely important or very important and nearly 74 percent indicated it took less time to travel to a non-VA facility.

Scheduling Appointments

  • More than 25 percent of respondents had to contact the VA facility between 2-5 times to schedule their appointment. But most only had to contact once to schedule their appointment.
  • Depending on the facility, 13-18 percent of those who tried making an appointment at a VA medical center were unable to schedule one.
  • Roughly 30 percent of veterans said they’ve delayed seeking care because of the difficulty of obtaining an appointment.
  • 13-31 percent of veterans were seen within a week of making an appointment, however, 26-46 percent faced wait times longer than a month, depending on the facility.
  • More than 65 percent said it takes fewer days to be days to be seen at non-VA facilities.

Quality of Care

  • Most veterans surveyed rated the care they received at non-VA facilities as “somewhat better” or “much better” than VA care.
  • The quality of healthcare services and communication with providers ranked as more important factors for veterans when it comes to healthcare. They also reported that non-VA facilities were better in both categories.

Cost of Care

  • Most veterans indicated out of pocket costs for services are less at VA facilities.

*Keep in mind that one office completed this survey, and it makes no mention of how many participated in the survey.

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The Merit Systems Protection Board

merit

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) is an independent and semi-judicial agency and is known as the “guardian of Federal merit systems”. It is part of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government and was established in 1979.

Appeals

If you are a civil servant and lose your job, generally you can appeal to the MSPB. They also handle suspensions lasting more than 14 days, pay/grade reductions, and furloughs lasting less than 30 days. Further, they handle a lot of retirement matters, especially if a federal disability retirement case has been denied twice.

Under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, a federal employee who alleges a personnel action was taken (or threatened) due to whistleblowing may seek corrective actions from the Board directly. They also deal with cases that have a discrimination aspect to them.

If an employee is not satisfied with the Board’s final decision, they can request that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission review the Board’s decision. Then, if the EEOC and Board can’t come to an agreement, the case if then referred to the Special Panel for final resolution. The Special Panel consists of a chairman who is appointed by the President, one member of the Board appointed by the MSPB Chairman, and finally one EEOC Commissioner appointed by the EEOC Chairman.

Merit Systems Studies

The Board also conducts merit systems studies. Earlier this year, the MSPB reported on its study of effective hiring practices in the federal government. They analyzed data and examined all areas of the hiring process, including internal processes, advertising online, and candidate assessments.

Organizational Principles

MSPB follows a list of merit systems principles. They include:

  • Encouraging diversity in hiring practices
  • Non-discrimination on basis of gender, race, religion, marital status, national origin, political affiliation, handicapped condition
  • Equal pay for work of equal value
  • Protection from reprisals if an employee reports misdeeds such as waste of funds, mismanagement, or danger to public health

Filing an Appeal

Most appeals are covered under 5 C.F.R. §§ 1201.24. An appellant can raise a claim or defense, not included in the appeal, at any time before the end of any conferences being held, to define the issues in the case. After that time, no new claims or defense can be raised, except for a showing of good cause.

Most appeals must be filed within 30 days of the initial agency action, or within 30 days of receiving the agency’s decision, whichever is last. If the parties agree to attempt a mediation, that creates an extension. As a result, the amount of time to file is extended by 30 days. This brings the total time frame to 60 days.

After Filing an Appeal

The Administrative Judge assigned to the case will issue an Acknowledgement Order. This sends a copy of the appeal to the agency and it directs the agency to submit a statement to its reason for taking the action/decision being challenged. The Acknowledgement Order will also order the appellant to submit evidence and make arguments.

The AJ will issue notices and orders and generally hold one or more prehearing conferences. The purpose of these is to clarify and narrow down the issues being appealed. After the hearing, the AJ issues an initial decision. The decision is required to identify all material issues of fact and law, summarize evidence, resolve any creditability issues, and include the AJ’s conclusions of law and legal reasoning.

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The FAA May Soon Become Privatized

faa

President Trump has proposed moving the nations’ air traffic control functions from the federal government to a private non-profit organization. He sent a list of principles to Congress saying, “It’s time to join the future. That is why I’m proposing new principles to Congress for air traffic control reform, making flights quicker, safer, and more reliable. Crucially, air traffic controllers support these reforms themselves. They’re the ones that know the systems that they want. They know it better than anybody.” He also said employees will be “highly valued” under the new plan.

Trump’s plan resembles the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act, introduced last year by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-PA. The White House stated that this bill was a “good foundation”.

Trump said, “There are amazing people that know this system so well. And under our plan, they will have more financial security, professional opportunity, and far superior equipment. Today, we are taking the first important step to clearing the runway for more jobs, lower prices, and much, much, much better transportation.”

Under this new proposal, air traffic control operations would no longer fall within the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration and become a private non-profit group, governed by an independent board of directors made up of representatives from airlines, employee unions, and general aviation and airport trade groups. There are 30,000 employees this would affect. However, the FAA would still maintain control of general aviation safety.

The new organization would still honor existing collective bargaining agreements. Instead of taxes funding the organization, the new non-profit entity would establish a user fee levied on flight passengers.

Trump said the plan would improve the nations’ ability to implement a system for tracking aircraft via GPS, rather than radio and radar communications. “Air traffic controllers keep us safe every day, even though they use this badly outdated system. That is why we want to give them access to capital markets and investors so they can obtain the best, newest and safest technology available.”

A special assistant to the president for infrastructure said this proposal will improve safety because it allows the FAA to conduct more objective oversight over air traffic control. “There would be a greater oversight because you won’t have the same agency overseeing its own potential errors. The FAA has done a great job, but it’s a good management practice to make them separate.”

Union Reactions

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) supported Shuster’s bill last year. Their president, Paul Rinaldi said, “NATCA shares the administration’s commitments to infrastructure modernization and providing the National Airspace System with a stable, predictable funding stream. We look forward to reviewing the specifics of the air traffic control legislation so we can evaluate whether it satisfies our unions’ principles, including protecting the rights and benefits of the ATC workforce.” NATCA represents around 20,000 air traffic controllers, engineers, and other air safety employees.

However, other employee groups remain unconvinced that privatizing the FAA is a good idea. A group of 7 unions representing FAA employees, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the FAA Managers Association, and the National Federation of Federal Employees sent a letter to Congress last month opposing the effort to privatize the FAA. The groups wrote, “Quite simply, overhauling the entire aviation system by removing air traffic from federal oversight and funding will be a serious setback for its development and growth. Our air traffic control system is a national public asset and we strongly believe it should remain in the public trust.”

Sen. John Thune, R-SD chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. He noted that any bill reforming air traffic control requires Democratic support and historically that hasn’t happened when privatization is on the table. “The FAA’s effort to improve air travel safety and efficiency by modernizing air traffic control has been hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and poor planning. As we move forward in discussing potential reforms, getting a bill to President Trump’s desk will require bipartisan support as well as a consensus among the aviation community on a way forward.”

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) said, “President Trump’s plan to implement this proposal would cut federal spending, make the government more effective and efficient, and reduce taxes for passengers.”

Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, AFL-CIO president Mike Peronne said his union opposed the plan for privatization because it was “risky” and an “unnecessary step at this pivotal point in its modernization”.

“True progress is being made through Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) programs,” Peronne said. “Breaking apart the system to establish a monopoly will take the focus off the substantial progress already being made. This would slow down enhancements and possibly compromise safety to fix an unbroken system. The FAA employees represented by PASS ensure that this country’s National Airspace System is operating safely and efficiently every day. Stripping air traffic control from the federal government will only introduce uncertainty and risk.”

NextGen is the FAA’s modernization plan for air traffic control.

According to the proposed FY2018 budget, the non-profit entity would begin to take over air traffic control in 2021. A 13-member board would provide oversight for the non-profit and would include members of unions, general aviation stakeholders, and government representatives.

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Crater Lake National Park

crater

This park is in Oregon and was established in 1902, making it the fifth oldest national park in the United States.

How it Formed

Mount Mazama began its existence about 400,000 years ago. After a period of dormancy, it became active again. Around 5700 B.C., it collapsed on itself during a powerful volcanic eruption, losing 2,500-3,500 feet in height. The eruption formed a large caldera that filled in about 740 years, forming Crater Lake.

History

Local Native Americans witnessed the collapse of Mount Mazama and kept the event alive in their legends.

On June 12, 1853, three gold prospectors stumbled upon the lake. In awe of the vibrant blue hue of the lake, they named it ‘Deep Blue Lake’ and the place where they first saw the lake became ‘Discovery Point’. However, gold was on their minds so the discovery of the lake was soon forgotten. Plus, locals preferred the name Crater Lake.

William Gladstone Steele devoted his life to the establishment and management of a national park at Crater Lake. He began this endeavor in 1870. He tried to bring recognition to the park by participating in lake surveys that provided scientific support. With the help of geologist Clarence Dutton, Steele organized an expedition to study the lake in 1886. They measured the lake depth at 168 different points and a topographer surveyed the area and created the first professional map of Crater Lake.

Crater Lake National Park was officially established May 22, 1902, by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Unique Features

It is 1,949 feet deep at its deepest point, making it the deepest lake in the U.S., second deepest in North America, and the ninth deepest in the world. If comparing the average depth of 1,148 feet to the average depth of other deep lakes, it becomes the deepest in the Western Hemisphere and the third deepest in the world. The lake depth is due to the volcanic eruption that took place.

One unique feature of this lake is it has no streams flowing in or out of it. All water that enters the lake is eventually lost to evaporation or subsurface seepage. The lake has a very blue hue and is refilled entirely from direct precipitation (snow or rain).

Another unique characteristic is that although snow covers Crater Lake National Park for eight months out of the year (an annual snowfall of 533 inches!), the lake rarely freezes over. This is due to a relatively mild onshore flow from the Pacific Ocean. 1949 was the last recorded year that the lake froze over. And 1985 saw a 95 percent surface freeze. Because the lake is so deep, it acts as a heat reservoir that absorbs and traps sunlight. This maintains the lake temperature at an average of 55⁰ F on the surface and 38⁰ F at the bottom throughout the year. The surface temperature fluctuates some, but the bottom stays quite constant.

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Are You Eligible for Federal Disability Retirement?

eligibilityQuestion of the Week: What are the Eligibility Requirements for Federal Disability Retirement?

A: You must meet all the following to be eligible:

  • You must have completed at least 18 months of federal civilian service creditable under FERS.
  • While employed in a position subject to the retirement system, you must have become disabled, due to disease or injury, and that disease or injury must be keeping you from performing useful and efficient service in your current position.
  • Your disability is expected to last at least one year.
  • Your agency must certify it is unable to accommodate your disabling condition in your present position and it has considered you for any vacant position in the same agency at the same grade or pay level, within the same commuting area for which you are qualified for reassignment.
  • You must apply for federal disability retirement before separation or within one year thereafter. OPM or your former employing agency must receive your application within one year of the date of separation.
  • You must also apply for Social Security benefits. This is a requirement for your FERS disability retirement application. If your Social Security application is withdrawn for any reason, OPM will dismiss your FERS disability retirement application.

If you think you may qualify for federal disability retirement, please do not hesitate to call us, and set up a FREE consultation. We have more than a decade of experience and we want to help you in any way we can. Give us a call at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form.

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Is Retiring Early a Good Idea?

retiring

We all love the idea of retiring early, or at least as soon as possible. Maybe at age 55 or 60. But what about the idea of retiring as early as 45? Is that even possible, or a good idea? Before going all-in on this idea of retiring at 45, carefully consider some of the issues below.

Minimum Retirement Age

Once you reach your Minimum Retirement Age (55-57 depending on when you were born), you are eligible for a FERS deferred retirement benefit if you have at least 10 years of federal service when you leave. However, retiring early, say 45, would leave you to completely rely on your savings to get you to your MRA for your basic retirement benefit. Then you would have to wait another few years until age 62 to be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits.

Also, if you are without entitlement to a FERS basic annuity benefit, you would forfeit lifetime continuation of health insurance under FEHB. To continue your health and life insurance benefits, you must be eligible for an immediate retirement and be covered for the last 5 years of your career.

FERS Supplement

Along with Social Security not being payable until at least age 62, the FERS annuity supplement (meant to bridge the gap between retirement and qualifying for Social Security) would not be payable. The supplement is only available when a FERS employee retires younger than 62 with an immediate, unreduced retirement—unless you’re disabled or retiring under special provisions.

TSP

Those who separate before being eligible for an immediate FERS retirement also may incur a 10 percent tax penalty for early withdrawals from a TSP before 59 ½. There are exceptions to this like choosing a monthly life expectancy payment schedule, separating in the year you turn 55, or under the special provisions for public safety officers.

To learn more about this, click the link below.

Are There Pitfalls to Retiring Really Early?

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