Monthly Archives: July 2017

New Proposal for Leave Policies

leaveIn December 2016, Congress passed legislation restricting the use of administrative leave for federal employees with the signing of the Administrative Leave Act of 2016. Before that, agencies granted paid excused absences to employees. These new regulations proposed place additional restrictions on agencies regarding leave.

Administrative Leave Restrictions

Below is a summary of the new policy in the 2017 Defense Act.

  • Administrative leave is separate from other forms of paid time off or excused absence already legislatively authorized.
  • Agencies must record other forms of authorized excused absences separate from administrative time off.
  • Investigative or notice leave is separate from administrative leave. These 2 categories could be used for extended excused absences because of personal issues. These categories are for completing an investigation or when an adverse action is proposed. In both cases, the agency must conclude the employee needs to be out of the office.
  • It allows agencies to use investigative or notice through a multi-step process that involves escalating controls over its use.
  • Notice time off is used when government interests are jeopardized. This includes continued presence of the threatening employee, possible destruction of evidence, or loss or damage to government property.
  • It requires agencies to provide the employee with an explanation of why they are being placed on investigative/notice leave. Records of these new forms of leave must be kept by the agency.

Limitations

Under the proposed regulations, an agency may not place an employee on administrative absence to investigate misconduct or performance for more than 10 calendar days in a calendar year. If the investigation is ongoing, the agency may decide to allow the employee to telework. And the agency may put an employee on investigative absence which can be used for 3-30-day increments.

Learn more about this proposal and restrictions by clicking on the link below.

New Administrative Leave Restrictions Proposed

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Common Forest Service Worker Injuries

commonConcluding our spotlight this month of the U.S. Forest Service, we will look at specific cases we have assisted with regards to Forest Service employees.

Law Enforcement Officer

The job duties of this position include investigating crimes on National Forest Service lands. This means apprehending, detaining, and arresting individuals is necessary. The position requires the person to work in “hazardous and arduous” conditions that require walking, climbing, reaching, pulling, crouching, and running over rough terrain. Strenuous activity is frequently required and the worker must remain in good physical condition to effectively perform field duties.

This client suffered from a meniscal tear and osteoarthritis and was unable to perform duties such as running, jumping, walking, climbing, or squatting.

Criminal Investigator

The duties of this position include hiking steep and arduous terrain while carrying a heavy pack of supplies and equipment. Exposure to the elements is a daily hazard. Another aspect of this job is to apprehend suspects when necessary and entering drug sites and having exposure to pesticides at times.

This particular client was suffering from atrial fibrillation, cardiomyopathy, myocarditis, among other conditions, and had a bi-ventricular pacemaker. Due to these conditions, he was unable to apprehend suspects effectively and couldn’t stay in the field for long periods of time alone. His heart conditions made it difficult for him to hike the rough and uneven terrain.

Contract Specialist

This position requires a person to create partnerships, build relationships, and draft proposals. It requires extreme focus to detail, the ability to be a self-motivator, and cultivate relationships.

In this case, the client was suffering from anxiety, deep depression, and panic attacks. She was unable to find purpose in her position and couldn’t be around people for any extended amount of time because of her anxiety. She became ineffective at work and could no longer perform her essential job duties at an efficient level.

Forestry Technician—Fire Engine Operator

The job duties of this position include entering arduous terrain and dangerous situations. The worker must drive the fire engine to the fire or incident location and put out the fire. The position requires the employee pass a Work Capacity Test because the job is so physically demanding. One part of the Work Capacity Test is to complete a 3-mile hike in 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound pack. Other requirements of this position are running, walking, bending, hiking, shoveling, chopping, throwing, lifting, and scaling uneven terrain.

This client was suffering from spondylitis (inflammation of the vertebra) of the lumbar spine, PTSD, bilateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), a hernia, and hearing loss. He was unable to squat, kneel, climb, jump, push, pull, or lift more than 10 pounds. It’s easy to see how he was unable to perform the essential duties of his job. Without passing the Work Capacity Test, he was no longer qualified for this position.

To read more about cases we have helped with, click below.

Agency Spotlight—Common Injuries of Forest Service Workers

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Workforce Bills to Keep an Eye On

workforceThe House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will consider several new pieces of legislation, all of which could affect federal employee retirement and could expand the authority agencies have.

TSP Flexibility Options

The TSP Modernization Act would let federal retirees make multiple age-based and post-separation withdrawals from their TSP. Currently, participants in federal service can make only one withdrawal from their TSP upon reaching 59 ½. TSP participants who have left federal service can also withdraw a portion of their account balance only once.

Cash Bonuses

This bill expands an agency’s authority to hand out cash bonuses to employees who report waste, fraud, abuse, or any area in which an agency can save money. The legislation says, “The head of the agency may pay a cash award to any employee of such agency whose identifying of unnecessary expenses to the Chief Financial Officer of the agency has resulted in cost savings for the agency.”

In the past, agencies could award up to $10,000 for making a cost saving disclosure, however, the Bonuses for Cost-Cutters Act of 2017 increases that amount to $20,000.

Limit on Political Appointees

The Political Appointee Burrowing Prevention Act prohibits political appointees from taking a position in career civil service for two years after separation from a political position.

Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys

Legislation has been introduced that ensures OPM will continue to conduct and administer annual employee surveys. It requires OPM to write all questions that apply to all federal employees, but surveys should also include questions specific to individual agencies. The legislation prevents OPM from making significant changes to the survey without first submitting regulations to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for review.

SECRET Act

The Securely Expediting Clearance Through Reporting Transparency Act requires the National Background and Investigations Bureau (NBIB) to submit quarterly reports for the next 5 years on its backlog of pending security clearance investigations. These reports should include the average length of time it takes to complete initial investigations and periodic reinvestigations at secret and top-secret levels. NBIB had 304,617 cases awaiting a secret clearance, 69,927 pending approval for top-secret clearance and 175,683 awaiting a periodic reinvestigation as of September 2016.

Public Pension Legislation

Rep. Don DeSantis (R-FL) wants to make retirement information for federal retirees subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. He said, “Americans should know exactly how their taxpayer dollars are used to fund the pensions of members of Congress and other federal bureaucrats. The Taxpayer Funded Pension Disclosure Act will empower taxpayers to hold their government accountable and demand that their hard-earned tax dollars are spent wisely.”

The bill does have support from 5 co-sponsors.

Keep in mind, some of these are only a proposal, so it’s likely these can, and will, change.

Read more about these below.

Federal Workforce Bills to Keep an Eye On

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Taxes You May Face in Retirement

taxesOnce you retire from federal service, you face new tax issues. This could affect whether you change tax brackets or not. Retirement generally means lower income, so that means lower taxes, right? Maybe. But retirement can also mean multiple sources of income, which can complicate tax payments. You may have Social Security income, distribution income from retirement accounts, military retired pay, and/or income from investments, property, part-time work, etc.

Each one of these comes with its’ own set of tax rules.

Social Security

When the Social Security Act was passed, these benefits were never intended to be a primary source of retirement income. According to the Social Security Administration, today payments replace approximately 40 percent of pre-retirement wages for retirees. Initially, Social Security payments weren’t subject to taxes. That’s no longer the case. Those who rely primarily on Social Security to pay their bills to escape taxation, because their overall income is too low.

However, for the high-income recipients, 15 percent of benefits are tax-free and 85 percent are taxed. The amount that is taxable depends on how much income you have in addition to Social Security. Another thing of note regarding Social Security is where you live. This determines how your benefits are taxed at the state level. There are 28 states, and Washington, D.C., that don’t tax Social Security income.

IRA and 401K Withdrawals

Except for Roth IRA withdrawals, all other income from retirement accounts is taxed in some way. Once you reach age 70 ½, you are required to start withdrawing money from your retirement accounts each year. This includes IRA’s, 401k, 403(b), and 457 plans. The government requires you to take a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) so it can collect taxes on this income.

The IRS imposes a 50 percent tax penalty on amounts that aren’t properly disbursed from your 401k account. The amount of tax you pay depends on the total amount of income and deductions you have and what tax bracket you’re in for that year.

Roth IRA disbursements aren’t taxed because those contributions are taxed when they are deposited into the retirement account. To withdraw tax-free, you must wait until age 59 ½. These accounts don’t have a required distribution, so you can let the money grow tax-free your whole life.

Pensions

Benefits from pensions and annuities are taxed. If the money went into your fund, by you or your employer, before it was taxed, it will be taxed when you withdraw it. Most pension accounts are funded with pre-tax income, which means the entire amount of your annual pension income is included in your taxable income each year.

Annuities

Tax rules for annuities purchased with after-tax dollars are determined by the type of annuity you own.

  • Immediate annuities—payments from an immediate annuity include principal, as well as the interest-only interest portion. Both are considered taxable income.
  • Fixed and variable deferred annuities—If you put money in a fixed/variable deferred annuity, you don’t pay taxes on the gain in the annuity until you take withdrawals. If you take withdrawals before age 59 ½, any gain withdrawn is taxed at your ordinary income tax rate and is subject to a 10 percent penalty tax.

If your annuity is owned by an IRA or another retirement account, then the tax rules of those retirement accounts apply to any withdrawal or annuity payments you receive from that annuity.

Other Taxable Retirement Income

Other income accrued during retirement is also taxed. Interest income, dividends, and capital gains on investments will be taxed just as they were before you retired.

However, not all retirement income is taxed. If you own a bank CD, and it matures, that extra money isn’t considered taxable income. Only the interest it earned must be reported.

The main thing to remember is your tax rate in retirement depends on your total amount of income and deductions.

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Do I Need a Lawyer for Federal Disability Retirement?

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Question of the Week: Do I Need a Lawyer to File for Federal Disability Retirement?

A: This question is a common one. We hear it quite often. And the answer, quite simply, is no. You do not have to hire a lawyer to file for federal disability retirement. However, a lot of thought should be put into this question and decision.

Filing for federal disability retirement yourself, while manageable, is a complex, and often, confusing process. There are deadlines and requirements you must be aware of and meet.

The following are important to consider when deciding whether to hire a lawyer or not.

Eligibility

The Office of Personnel Management has laid out specific criteria you must meet to qualify for federal disability retirement. However, it’s not always clear if you meet those criteria. Seeking a lawyer is beneficial here. Harris Federal Law Firm offers FREE consultations so we can help discuss your case and specific situation and help determine if federal disability retirement is right for you.

Medical

The important thing with federal disability retirement is tying your medical condition to your inability to perform your duties at an efficient level. Doctors may not be aware of the one-year deadline t submit your application to OPM. On top of that, you need to know which forms to submit with your application.

Application

Often, federal disability retirement applications are lengthy and might include hundreds of pages. If filing on you own, that may get overwhelming. A lawyer can help you understand, not only what forms you need, but can make sure those forms are accurate and complete.

Appeals

Sometimes cases get denies by OPM, whether by mistake or an incomplete application. Again, there are deadlines, much tighter in this event, and having a lawyer in this stage is extremely beneficial. You may hire a lawyer at this stage, however, if you had one already at the initial stage, they generally represent you at any subsequent stages, should your application get denied.

Again, it’s not required that you retain a lawyer to file for federal disability retirement. However, having one may put your mind at ease when moving through the federal disability retirement process. We have represented thousands of federal employees with their cases, and we can help navigate you through the process. Call us at 877-226-2723 to set up a FREE consultation with us so we can discuss your specific situation. You can also fill out this INQUIRY form.

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Official Time at the VA

timeOfficial time describes a practice where the federal government pays federal employees their regular salary and benefits while representing a union.

The Use of Official Time at the VA

David Shulkin, Secretary of the VA, wants to change the number of employees using official time and the amount used by the VA employees solely for representing the union. He noted, “the amount of time that is being spent away from clinical duties and other duties” is something that needs to be negotiated with the unions with which the agency has collective bargaining agreements.

Government Accountability Report

According to GAO, in FY2015, data collected through a VA time tracking system showed VA employees spent approximately 1,057,000 hours of official time for union representational activities. According to VA officials, unions represented almost 290,000 bargaining unit employees across the agency during this time.

The data also shows 346 employees spent 100 percent of their time on official time. This basically means the entire salary and benefits paid by the agency for these 346 employees was spent for the employee to represent a union and not performing clinical or other duties for the VA.

Negotiating Reforms

The use of official time in an agency is subject to negotiations between the agency and union. The VA is one agency that hasn’t put effort into accurately tracking how much they are spending in supporting union activities.

Also, negotiating labor union contracts at the agency often takes one or more years and the contracts are usually effective for several years. While the agency and union could agree to open negotiations on the issue, the unions aren’t going to be willing to give up a benefit that provides so much financial support for union activity paid entirely by the federal government.

Money Spent on Union Activity in the Government

According to OPM, in FY2012, the number of hours spent on official time was 3,439,499 at a cost of $157,196,468 for salaries and benefits. Even though this figure is very specific, no one really knows how much is spent on these activities.

To learn more about this, please click the link below.

The Veterans Affairs Department and Official Time

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Public or Private Sector?

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Some federal employees may consider leaving the federal government if certain proposed changes to retirement and benefits occur. Depending on your current situation, this may be a smart move. And for others, it may not be. Below are some things to consider if you are not yet eligible to retire from federal service but are wanting to leave.

Job Security

Federal government jobs generally have more job security than private sector ones. There are rules designed to protect federal employees such as RIF procedures. These kinds of protections in the private sector come in the form of a union contract. Private sector employees could get let go at any time, for any reason.

Retirement Benefits

Federal employees have a defined benefit pension. Even if changes come, the pension will still be there. Many private sector employees don’t have one. Roughly 14 percent of private sector employers offer defined benefit pensions to new hires, and less than a third of current private sector workers are covered by one.

TSP

The Thrift Savings Plan is a defined contribution plan. Government matching contributions for FERS employees are more generous than average private sector counterparts. It’s estimated that 20 percent of private sector contribution plans have no match at all.

FEHBP

The Federal Employees Health Benefits Program provides excellent coverage and can be carried into retirement, unlike many private sector plans.

Leave

Federal leave programs are generous. An employee with 15 or more years of federal service earns one day of annual leave per pay period. Further, sick leave is accumulated without a limit. Very few private sector employers offer that. Most have caps or a use it or lose it rule

Retirement Pay

If you are eligible to retire, you could collect both a federal pension and a private sector salary.

Of course, this list is not exclusive. And for some people, private sector employment makes more sense, and for others, federal employment is the way to go. If the proposed retirement changes are enacted for federal employees and retirees, it’s important to know all the facts and weigh your options carefully.

Find out more about what the private sector CAN offer by clicking below.

Federal or Private Sector Employment: Is One Better Than the Other?

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National Debt and Federal Employee Pensions

treasuryThe debt limit has not been raised by Congress so the debt ceiling for the federal government was reached in March 2017. During this time, the Department of Treasury has been using “extraordinary measures” so the federal government can pay its’ bills. However, they are expected to run out extraordinary measures by early September 2017. At that time, the government will be relying entirely on tax receipts for new funds.

Even if those tax receipts remain “healthy”, the federal government estimated it’ll be out of money by early October. Although, this estimate has changed.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says Congress should vote on raising the debt limit before going on their August recess. The debt limit is the total amount the government is authorized to borrow to meet its legal obligations like Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on national debt, and tax refunds.

The debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments. It only allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have made in the past.

The national debt is now almost at $20 trillion and the debt limit is $19.808 trillion.

The extraordinary measures available to the Treasury that may be of interest to federal employees and retirees are:

  • Determining that a “debt issuance suspension period” exists, which permits the redemption of existing, and the suspension of new investments of the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund and Postal Service Retirees Health Benefit Fund.
  • Suspending reinvestment of Government Securities Investment Fund (G-Fund in TSP).

These measures are limited and only postpone the need for an increase in the debt limit. On average, the public debt of the U.S. is increasing by $100 billion per month.

Once the debt limit has been reached, the Treasury may also suspend the daily investment of Treasury securities held by the G Fund of the TSP. The G Fund is a money market defined-contribution retirement fund for federal employees. The Fund invests in special-issue Treasury securities and those securities count against the debt limit. The balance matures daily and the government normally re-invests the money. Congress has granted the Treasury Department authority to suspend the reinvestment of all or part of the balance of the G Fund when the Secretary determines the fund can’t be fully invested without exceeding the debt limit.

By law, the G Fund will be made whole once the debt limit is increased. The Treasury assures federal employees and retirees that they will not be affected by these events. Overall investors in the TSP who invest in the G Fun don’t lose money.

Below is a statement TSP has issued in the past regarding the G Fund and debt suspension period.

“The make-whole provision means that TSP participants who have invested in the G Fund will not lose anything. G Fund account balances would be the same from day to day as if they were invested in Treasury securities. Furthermore, disbursement of TSP loans and withdrawals would not be delayed nor would the amounts of those payments be reduced.”

The CSRDF provides defined benefits to retired and disabled federal employees covered by CSRS. The Treasury Department is authorized to suspend investing money received by CSRDF. This authority can be used when the Secretary of the Treasury determines additional investments can’t be made without exceeding the debt limit. Also, the Treasury can redeem existing investments held by CSRDF when the Treasury Secretary declares a “debt issuance suspension period”. Currently, the Secretary of the Treasury has issued one of these which started March 16, 2017, and ends July 28, 2017.

The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 requires investment in PSRHBF be made in the same manner as CSRDF.

According to the Treasury Department, benefits for retired and disabled federal employees will continue getting paid even if the debt limit is increased.

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Better Law Officer Protection Needed

law

A bipartisan pair of senators is calling for measures to be taken to protect federal immigration officers. This comes in response to a growing concern over a wave of attacks on law enforcement personnel.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-MO) noted in a letter to the Homeland Security Department Inspector General that assaults on ICE officers have spiked this year. They asked the IG to investigate why the uptick has occurred and what steps DHS and ICE can take to better protect employees.

“Anytime you have an increase in assaults against our law enforcement officers, you need to find out why and take steps to ensure their protection,” McCaskill said. “Protecting law enforcement isn’t a partisan issue, which is why I’m happy to be taking action along with my Republican colleague.”

There have been 19 recorded assaults on ICE personnel this year, through May 22, according to ICE. By comparison, there were only 24 incidents in all of 2016. The two senators have also requested data since 2010, what DHS/ICE have already done to protect employees, and whether assailants have been prosecuted.

ICE acting director Thomas Homan blamed the media and immigrant groups for putting officers at risk by promoting false or misleading reports about the nature of their jobs. His employees have been “unfairly vilified for simply trying to do their jobs”.

“People have the right to protest but ICE officers also have rights. They have a right to enforce the law safely and return to their families at the end of the day. In the country I grew up in, you should be worried if you’re violating the law.” He said officers shouldn’t be threatened or blamed for laws they didn’t write. Too often the respect afforded to other law enforcement officers isn’t extended to ICE officers.

He went on to say, “Unlike most other agencies, we do this despite a constant deluge of biased attacks against ICE personnel by those who disagree with the laws we enforce.”

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History of the Forest Service

forest

The concept of national forests came from Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation group, the Boone and Crockett Club. In 1876, Congress created the Office of Special Agent in the Agriculture Department to assess the quality and conditions of U.S. forests.

In 1881, the office was expanded into the newly formed Division of Forestry. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 authorized withdrawing land from the public domain as “forest reserves”, which was managed by the Department of the Interior. The Division of Forestry became the Bureau of Forestry in 1901.

It became the U.S. Forest Service when the Transfer Act of 1905 transferred the management of forest reserves from the General Land Office of the Interior Department to the Bureau of Forestry.

The following are significant pieces of legislation affecting the Forest Service.

Weeks Act

In 1905, Congress passed the Weeks Act. This Act authorized the government to purchase private lands for stream-flow protection and to maintain lands as national forests. This made it possible to expand the national forest system into the eastern U.S. The Act states that is will “examine, locate, and recommend for purchase…such lands within the watersheds of navigable streams as…may be necessary to the regulations of flow of navigable streams.” Meaning, the government could purchase private land if the purchase was deemed necessary to protect rivers and watersheds in the eastern U.S. It also allowed the land acquired through this Act to be preserved and maintained as national forest territory. With land acquired this way, the Chief Forester could issue permits for water power development in National Forests.

Another thing the Weeks Act did was it provided more cooperation between federal and state governments regarding fire control. The 1910 fire season largely influenced this legislation because it destroyed millions of acres of land in the western U.S. That fire season alone put the U.S. Forest Service $1.1 million in debt.

 

Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960

This Act authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to develop and administer renewable resources of timber, range, water, recreation, and wildlife in National Forests for multiple use and sustained yield of products and services. This is the first law to have the five major uses of National Forests contained in one law equally.

Multiple use is defined as the “management of all various renewable surface resources of national forests so they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the needs of the American people.”

Sustained yield is defined as the “achievement and maintenance in perpetuity of a high-level annual or regular periodic output of various renewable resources of national forests without impairment of the productivity of the land.”

Wilderness Act

The Act created the legal definition of wilderness in the U.S.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself, is a visitor who doesn’t remain.”

It took 60+ drafts and 8 years to sign this into law.

National Forest Management Act of 1976

This is the primary statute governing the administration of National Forests. The main objectives of this Act include requiring the U.S. Forest Service to develop plans for National Forests, set standards for timber sales, and create policies to regulate timber harvesting.

National Environmental Policy Act

This act promotes the enhancement of the environment. The most significant outcome was the requirement that all executive federal agencies prepare environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. These reports state potential environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions. However, this does not apply to the President, Congress, or Federal courts.

Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974

This Act authorized the long-range planning by the U.S. Forest Service to ensure the future of forest resources while maintaining a quality environment.

Click below to read more about this agency’s history.

Agency Spotlight—History of the U.S. Forest Service

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