Monthly Archives: December 2017

Thank You 2017, Here’s to 2018

2017 was an extraordinary year for Harris Federal Law Firm. While we look forward to what 2018 will bring, we reflect on what 2017 brought. Here are some of the highlights:

Webinars

We launched our first webinar in 2015 and since then, they’ve only continued to grow. We launched brand new topics in 2017 and we’re so pleased with the turnout. Stay tuned for what 2018 has to offer and check out our “Federal Employee Webinar Schedule” page for our upcoming schedule.

Approvals

2017 brought historically large backlogs at the Office of Personnel Management and slower decision times for federal disability retirement and voluntary retirement applications alike. However, even with the slower processing times, the Harris Federal team secured 150 approvals! This means that these federal workers now have a benefit that provides a fresh start outside the federal government. We look forward to increasing this number in 2018.

Over 30 Federal Agencies

The year we represented, or are representing, federal workers from over 30 federal agencies. USPS, Veteran’s Affairs, DHS, ICE, FAMS, and IRS are just to name a few. We are so honored to assist federal workers in so many different agencies.

Advocacy

In October, our attorneys attended the national Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group (WILG) convention in Florida. Senior Attorney Brad Harris was presented with the President’s Award at this year’s Annual Convention for his leadership and accomplishment in service to WILG. We are so proud of all the hard work done by our attorneys.

Team and Office Accomplishments

This year brought many milestones, not only as an office but also for members of our team.

Some of our team completed marathons, half marathons, and team relay races.

Our office expanded as we welcomed new members to the team and new offices were built.

3 people in the office welcomed new additions to their families and became parents.

Our entire office trained for and completed a 5k. And 5 of us took home age group awards!

Our attorney Leah Bachmeyer Kille became licensed in Washington DC. She can now practice law in Kentucky and Washington DC. She also co-authored the featured article in the Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association (MWELA) Sept/Oct 2016 Newsletter, Vol 26, Issue 5 titled “Use a Federal Workers’ Compensation Stress Claim in your case”.

One of our Case Evaluation Specialists, Cal, celebrated his 5th year at the firm.

Our office cooked and provided dinner for those staying at the Ronald McDonald House here in Lexington, KY.ronald

Notes of Thanks

We are so humbled when clients, or past clients, take the time to write and send us their well wishes. It means the world to us and keeps us going.

“Hiring Harris Federal was the best decision I made as I worked through the federal disability process.  I was trying to handle the process myself and I was getting nowhere and was getting more stressed, which is the last thing I needed in my condition.  I felt like I was spending half of each therapy session trying to get the doctor to fill out my paperwork or at least understand the process.  Once I hired Harris Federal everything changed.  Suddenly my medical providers were much more helpful and responsive.  I learned that medical providers are much more likely to respond to a request from a law office than directly from the patient.  Once Harris Federal took over the filing process my stress level subsided and I was able to focus on therapy instead of begging to get paperwork filled out. Harris Federal is helpful, professional, timely, and understanding.  The very reasonable fee I paid is some of the best money I have ever spent.  I would work with them again if I needed their assistance, they have earned my trust!”

T. – Woodbridge, VA

“If you are a federal employee and considering applying for disability retirement, I strongly recommend Harris Federal Law Firm.  I was recently approved for disability retirement and I thank Harris Federal for their assistance.  They have a very knowledgeable, experienced and professional team.  This made all the difference in getting my application approved.  Thanks!”   

V. – Laredo, TX

“Candace, I want to thank you again for helping us in this LONG and FRUSTRATING process. I only had to deal with it for myself, you deal with it every day for so many people. I really do appreciate how you made sure everything was done how it should be done. I know I could not have gone through this without your assistance and reassurance when I needed it. Thank you so much!”

H. – Livingston, TX

Thank you to all who have made this year a success. We are so grateful and we are ready to see what 2018 will bring! Have a Happy New Year!

If you think you may qualify for federal disability retirement and would like to find out more,  fill out our INQUIRY FORM for a free consultation or call us at 877-226-2723.

Help Needed to Hire Immigration Personnel

helpPresident Trump’s agenda includes bringing on nearly 26,000 new employees over the next several years. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is looking to contract with a private sector consultant to help.

This request for information (RFI) comes at a time when Customs and Border Protection was recently issued a contract valued at $297 million in support of its own hiring push. CBP’s contract asks for only 30% of the employees ICE is looking to hire.

The ICE RFI looks for support in bringing on 2,500 workers the first year of the contract starting March 2018. The contract has 4 option years. The first 3, the selected company would help ICE hire 7,000 new employees annually. The final year, beginning March 2022, ICE would bring on 2,200 new workers.

In FY2017, ICE hired just 1,557 new employees across all positions.

An ICE spokeswoman, Danielle Bennett, said ICE received authority to use direct hiring and dual compensation waivers and has made general improvements to its hiring processes. She said these changes will allow ICE to “meet the anticipated unprecedented hiring numbers in the coming years”.

The contractor’s responsibilities would include recruitment and staffing, payroll support, processing support, classification and position management, benefits support, and general administrative assistance. They will also develop “multiple recruitment strategies”, draft vacancy announcements, review applications to determine qualifications, assist hiring managers in their reviews, and determine pay rates for job offers.

The Contract

The total length of the contract won’t exceed 66 months. The value of the contract may lessen as duties are assumed by ICE’s human resource team or hiring requirements cease.

Trump requested a 10,000-capacity surge in ICE workforce, however, ICE is asking for assistance in hiring 25,700 employees. The agency currently employs 20,000 total staff. This mandated hiring surge is set to take place entirely within ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations. The RFI would boost hiring both at that office and support staff for new enforcement agents.

ICE officials said in a recap of the agency’s FY2017 actions that it was making positive progress on fulfilling Trump’s hiring order. The House approved a FY2018 spending bill that would provide $186.5 million for ICE to boost its ranks by 1,000 agents.

A leaked document required DHS to onboard 2,000 ICE agents in the year despite DHS’s suggestion to hire only 1,000. The Border Patrol hasn’t met Trump’s hiring requirement. They brought on 1,477 frontline personnel in 2017, however, most were for Customs Officer positions instead of BP agents.

A spending bill for FY2017 cut CBP workforce spending by $200 million. DHS inspector general estimated, based on current hiring and attrition rates, CBP would need 750,000 applications to fill Trump’s order.

The agency is also adjusting its polygraph exam, changing its physical fitness test and reforming its training process in hopes their hiring rate improves. Their average application processing time has decreased from 400 days in 2014 to 160 days today.

 

To learn more, please click below.

Outside Help Needed to Hire 26,000 New Immigration Personnel

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Under Used Ways to Recruit and Retain Talent

recruit

The Office of Personnel Management has encouraged agencies to become more creative to recruit and retain talent. One reason for this is agencies are facing more pressure to put the right people in the right jobs for mission-critical priorities, but stricter budgets are making that harder to do.

A toolbox of 7 different incentives is at the disposal of agencies. According to a new study from the Government Accountability Office, agencies can use more help from OPM to use these incentives, and there isn’t much government-wide analysis on which incentives work best under which circumstances.

There are 7 broad “special payment” authorities that agencies can use to help them compete for top talent and fill mission-critical positions or skills gaps:

  • Special rates
  • Recruitment incentives
  • Relocation incentives
  • Retention incentives
  • Superior qualifications and special needs pay-setting
  • Student loan repayment
  • Critical position pay

According to a GAO survey of 27 Chief Human Capital Officers, less than 6% of more than 2 million federal employees in FY2016 received special compensation under at least 1 of these 7 pay authorities.  Most of those employees received special pay rates, followed by retention incentives. Critical position pay incentives were rarely used, in part, because that authority is capped at 800 positions government-wide.

GAO wrote, “An OPM official said that over time agencies have relied less on these special rates due to the introduction of locality pay. For example, in its 2005 annual review of special rates, OPM reported that 14 special rates schedules would be terminated because higher locality rates applied at all steps of each covered grade.”

In total, agencies spent about $805 million on recruitment, retention, and relocation incentives (3Rs), as well as student loan repayments between FY2014-2016. The most was spent on retention services (40%). GAO noted that spending on the 3Rs has risen since 2014. OPM placed a freeze on spending for recruitment and retention incentives in 2011 and just removed those caps at the end of last year.

Agencies told GAO that special payment authorities generally had positive impacts on agencies staffing and retention needs. More organizations are using the authorities to staff cybersecurity and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) positions than any other mission-critical area.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency used a retention incentive to persuade a senior research analyst to stay. And, the Department of Homeland Security developed “a unique retention incentive plan that focused on specialized certification for employees in” IT and cybersecurity positions, GAO said.

More Resources Needed

However, most agencies said they lacked sufficient resources to use special payment authorities more regularly and budget constraints forced them to use incentives only to fill the most critical vacancies. More resources could help agencies use special pay authorities more effectively, but most departments said better training for managers would also help them to better use these programs.

“HHS noted budget constraints over the last several years have led to retirements and resignations among more experienced HR staff,” GAO wrote. “This resulted in a loss of institutional knowledge on complex pay and leave authorities, including those affecting special payments. HHS officials said the loss of experienced HR staff diminished the agency’s internal capacity to train remaining staff.”

There are some resources and tools OPM has provided to agency HR managers, so they can learn more about special payment authorities. OPM also collects data on how agencies are using those incentives but doesn’t use that data to better understand which authorities work best and how organizations can improve.

GAO wrote, “By not tracking and analyzing data on the use of special payment authorities, OPM and the CHCO Council do not have the information they need to help determine what potential changes may be needed, and have limited assurance that special payment authorities are helping agencies meet their needs and achieve recruitment and retention goals.”

GAO recommended OPM analyze whether the 7 special authorities are meeting agencies’ recruitment and retention needs. OPM should also develop best practices for using each of the 7 incentives. They also recommended OPM set written procedures for assessing special payment authority requests that require the agency’s approval.

According to GAO, OPM took an average of 4-6 months to approve agencies special rates and critical pay requests.

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Is There a Pay Freeze Coming for 2019?

freezeA leaked report surfaced showing the Trump administration intends to propose a pay freeze for civilian employees in 2019. The Senate Committee’s reports are based on information provided by a whistleblower. The leaked document was a non-public “passback” document from the Office of Management and Budget.

The “passback” process is part of the back and forth budget formulation process between agencies and the White House. The process looks something like this: agencies submit their budget requests to OMB, OMB reviews and endures it aligns with the President’s priorities and then communicates funding decisions to the agency (the “passback”, sometimes providing less funding than requested, sometimes more).

This leaked document is titled The Department of Homeland Security Fiscal Year 2019 Budget and Policy Guidance. It details OMB guidance from the President to Department of Homeland Security regarding its FY2019 budget proposal.

A quote from this report says, “OMB rejected the Departments’ request for a 2019 pay raise for Border Patrol Agents, ICE Agents, CBP Officers, and other DHS employees, and refused an increase for CBP health benefits. The President’s FY2019 budget proposal will seek a government-wide pay freeze for all civilian federal employees, potentially impacting the department’s ability to recruit and retain qualified employees.”

This report went on to say, “OMB has instructed DHS: ‘Per government-wide guidance, no civilian pay raise is included in the recommended level for the FY2019 budget.’ This pay freeze includes individuals serving in law enforcement positions throughout DHS, except for those in non-civilian positions with the Coast Guard.”

This would also affect health benefits. OMB rejected DHS’s proposed increases for CBP civilian employee health benefits.

If enacted, the pay freeze may impact retention of employees and the ability of DHS to meet it’s hiring goals.

Only time will tell if this will happen or not. Stay tuned.

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Is There a Pay Parity Coming for Federal Employees?

parity

Some lawmakers have asked President Trump to give federal employees a pay boost equal with that of the military. They recently sent him a letter asking for him to revise his alternate pay plan to increase the annual pay raise from 1.9% (the overall average amount currently proposed) to 2.4% (the amount likely to be given to military personnel).

“We support the biggest pay increase possible for our military members. We also want to note that with very few exceptions, there has been parity with respect to pay raises for military and civilian federal employees,” the letter said.

In the past, Congress has deferred the decision of the pay raise for federal employees to the president. Over the last 10 years, there have been 5 years between 2007-2017 when the military received a higher pay than civilians and no years in which civilians received a higher pay raise than the military. The biggest reason for that is military personnel are seen as being in a more dangerous occupation than federal civilian employees.

Congress included a 2.4% pay raise for military personnel in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, but the president has yet to sign it.

“We felt strongly that federal employees are an asset to the federal government and deserve parity with respect to pay increases for the military and for civilian employees,” those lawmakers wrote in a letter. “This is critical to recruiting and retaining the talent necessary for an innovative and effective federal workforce. We hope you will agree and use your authority to increase civilian pay to 2.4% in 2018.”

There is an across-the-board pay adjustment formula in the Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act that sets raises for most federal employees under the General Schedule. The president can choose to differ from this formula and then Congress can ultimately propose and pass any alternative numbers.

These 12 lawmakers noted that with few exceptions, military and civilian employees generally get the same raise during a given year.

“Unfortunately, federal workers are often vilified, and their pay and benefits are constantly under attack,” they said. “Over the last 6 years, federal employees have contributed nearly $200 billion to deficit reduction. They have also had to endure pay freezes, hiring freezes, lost salaries because of sequestration-related furloughs and higher pension contributions. Most recently, they are reporting to work each day under the uncertainty of whether their positions will remain after the administration’s’ reorganization efforts.”

The National Treasury Employees Union applauded this saying, “This letter is a well-deserved recognition that the civilian workforce, often working alongside their counterparts in the military to deliver vital government services to Americans, deserve a decent raise next year.”

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Watch Out for Offsets and Over-Payments

offsets

If you are a federal worker who is eligible for more than one type of disability (i.e. disability retirement, social security disability, workers’ compensation, etc.), pay special attention to benefit interactions and offsets. Sometimes, not knowing these interactions, or not catching them, can cause overpayment to you. It’s almost impossible to get out of repaying these so it’s important to understand how these do and don’t work together.

Social Security and OCWP

If you are receiving OWCP Wage Loss payments or a Schedule Award, the Social Security Administration will deduct a percentage of its annuity payments based on the amount you’re entitled to through OWCP. If your Schedule Award is substantial, your Social Security Disability payments will significantly reduce.

OWCP benefits are meant to be temporary and the agency’s goal is to eventually send you back to work. For this reason, many federal workers opt to apply for federal disability retirement.

Federal Disability Retirement and Social Security Disability

You must apply for Social Security Disability to be eligible for Federal Disability Retirement, however, an approval is not required.

If you are receiving both benefits, Social Security becomes the primary source of income.

Your first-year benefit under FERS is 60% of your High-3 salary, which is reduced by 100% of your Social Security Disability payment. The second year is 40% of your High-3 salary, which is reduced by 60% of your Social Security Disability payment.

Here is a chart to help explain this.

Federal Disability Retirement and OWCP

It’s possible to be approved for both these benefits, but you need to decide which is more beneficial to you. General, OWCP pays more, but it is designed to be temporary. If you are receiving OPM annuity payments and you get approved for OWCP payments, you can switch. However, you MUST notify OPM of this change, otherwise, you risk overpayment or termination of benefits.

You can’t receive OWCP Wage Loss and OPM payments at the same time, but you can receive a Schedule Award with OPM annuity payments.

Click here for an offset chart for these, and more benefit interactions.

Harris Federal Law Firm helps federal and Postal employees nationwide with federal disability retirement cases. If you have an injury or illness that keeps you from performing your essential job duties, you may qualify for Federal Disability Retirement. Give us a call at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form today.

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Post-Separation TSP Withdrawals

separation

So far in this series, we have covered the basics of the Thrift Saving Planemployee and agency contributions, and the differences between Traditional and Roth TSP accounts. The next couple of posts will look at loansin-service and post-separation withdrawals, and refunds in your TSP account, with this post covering post-separation withdrawals.

Post-Separation Withdrawals

If your vested account balance is $200 or more after you leave federal service, you can leave your money in the TSP until later or withdrawal all or a portion of your account. Any withdrawal from your account will be made up of a proportional amount of Traditional and Roth money. If your vested account balance is less than $200 when you leave federal service, TSP will automatically send you a check for your account amount.

There are two types of post-separation withdrawals; partial and full.

Partial

You may take out $1,000 or more and leave the rest in your account until you decide to withdrawal, but you may only take one partial withdrawal from your account. And if you made an age-based in-service withdrawal, you aren’t eligible for a partial withdrawal.

Full

You may choose how your entire account will be distributed using one—or any combo of—the 3 options:

  • Single payment
  • Series of TSP monthly payments
  • Life annuity purchased for you by TSP (covered in the next post)

Single Payment

A single payment allows you to withdrawal your entire TSP account at one time in one payment.

Monthly Payments

This allows you to withdraw your entire account in a series of payments, paid to you each month from your account. You can also ask for a specific dollar amount each month or have TSP calculate monthly payments based on your life expectancy. If choosing a specific dollar amount, it must be at least $25.

At any time while receiving monthly payments, you can ask TSP to stop the payments and pay you your remaining account balance in a single payment. Once a year, you also can make changes to the dollar amount of the monthly payments you are receiving. Also, once a year, you can make a one-time switch to receive monthly payments based on the dollar amount rather than monthly payments based on life expectancy.

Harris Federal Law Firm helps federal and Postal employees nationwide with federal disability retirement cases. If you have an injury or illness that keeps you from performing your essential job duties, you may qualify for Federal Disability Retirement. Give us a call at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form today.

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Investment Funding Has Been Suspended

investmentThe federal government has taken an “extraordinary measure” to avoid hitting the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the government is stopping investment into 2 retirement funds for federal employees.

The 2 funds are the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund (CSRDF) and the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund. As an attempt to avoid exceeding the debt ceiling, Mnuchin said the government can no longer invest in these funds. He did say though, that once the debt limit is raised, the funds will be made whole again.

This is what is done with the G Fund.

CSRDF

The fund provides defined benefits to retired and disabled federal employees covered by the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). It invests in special-issue Treasury securities which count against the debt limit.

The Treasury Department has the authority to suspend investing money received by the CSRDF. This authority can be used when the Secretary of the Treasury determines the additional investments can’t be made without exceeding the debt limit. The Department can also redeem existing investments by the CSRDF when the Secretary determines a “debt issuance suspension period”.

Debt Ceiling

A new debt limit was imposed starting December 8, 2017. Congress suspended the debt ceiling in September, allowing the government to borrow as much money as it wanted. When that suspension ended, Congress imposed a new debt ceiling of $20.493 trillion. If the government wants to continue to borrow at its usual pace, Congress will have to raise the limit once again.

The Congressional Budget Office said in a recent report that the federal government should be able to operate via the use of these “extraordinary measures” until March or April, but at that point, the government would start to run out of money if the debt ceiling isn’t raised.

“Federal retirees and employees will be unaffected by these actions,” Mnuchin said. However, he urges Congress to raise the ceiling as soon as possible.

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2017 Best Places to Work Rankings

rankings

The Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte produced the results for this year’s survey, with federal employee engagement being a top focus.

A few familiar stories showed up in the 2017 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings: NASA is once again number 1 and the Homeland Security Department is once again at the bottom. A few unfamiliar stories showed up this year as well.

DHS showed momentum in their favor in the federal employee engagement area. They overcame 6 consecutive years of declining engagement scores and improved by 6.2 points this year; their largest increase since 2009. This earned them the title of “most improved large agency” in 2017.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) became the most improved agency subcomponent. Their engagement score increased by 11.5 points this year—up from a score of 45.2 in 2016 to 56.7 this year. ICE was among 7 DHS subcomponents that had improved scores. Customs and Border Protection saw its score improve by 6.2 points. Federal Emergency Management Agency saw their employee engagement score increase by 6.3 points. The Secret Service, notoriously on the bottom, even got in on this seeing a 0.2 bump in its score.

Sean Morris, the federal human capital leader at Deloitte said, “I’ve seen those leaders actually really concrete their efforts around engagement, and I believe we’re starting to see that pay off. Are they still on the lower end? Absolutely. But their momentum is very encouraging.”

Leadership numbers improved this year, but remain low. Around 43% of employees said their leaders generate high levels of commitment in their agencies, according to the 2017 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. About 74% of agencies improved their employee engagement scores this year.

There were a few surprises trending in the other direction

The State Department saw a 2.8-point drop in employee engagement from last year—the largest single-year decline since the Partnership started rankings in 2003. They are 8thamong large agencies and its 1st year not in the top 5 since 2011. Their biggest decline came in employees’ perceptions of agency leadership, which dropped 9.2 points.

So far, these rankings are significantly less detailed than last year. OPMP didn’t provide data this year for 21 small agencies and 165 subcomponents, citing privacy reasons. However, OPM reversed its decision and will provide the Partnership with the missing data. They will update the 2017 rankings in January 2018.

“OPM’s decision to now provide complete government-wide data will make it easier for agencies to compare themselves to their federal counterparts, and help Congress and the Trump administration engage in comprehensive oversight of federal workforce management,” Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier said.

To read more about these rankings, click below.

2017 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government Rankings

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Possible TSP I Fund Changes

fund

The Executive Director of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB), the agency that oversees TSP operations, is requesting a change to the I Fund Index due to a recent study. TSP requested this study—conducted by Aon Hewitt Investment Consulting. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the appropriate indexes to use for the C, F, S, and I Funds.

After review, Aon Hewitt determined that the C, F, and S Funds should continue to track their current indexes. The C Fund currently tracks the S&P 500 Index, and the S Fund tracks the Dow Jones U.S. Completion Total Stock Market Index. They recommended TSP stay with these because the entire U.S. Stock Market is covered by these 2 indexes, whereas the other combination considered (Russell 1000 and 2000 Indexes), only covers 98% of the market.

Aon Hewitt Recommendations

The study looked at 8 non-U.S. stock indexes as possible alternatives for use by the I Fund. Currently, the I Fund tracks MSCI Europe, Australia, Far East (EAFE) Index. Aon Hewitt recommends changing to the MSCI All Country World ex U.S. Investable Market Index (IMI) based on the study’s results. This would offer TSP participants who invest in the I Fund exposure to markets they don’t have access to currently like Canada, emerging markets, and international small-cap equities.

 

FRTIB Executive Director Recommendations

Ravindra Deo, the Executive Director of the FRTIB said in a memo to board directors that he was seeking their approval for the change. He said he felt the most appropriate time to implement the change would be during the next re-compete of the I Fund’s investment management, which is the calendar year 3rd quarter of 2018. The transition, expected to take place over 3-6 months, could be done no later than the end of the first half of the calendar year 2019.

Deo wrote, “Based on the study by AHIC, including costs and other information provided in its written report and presentation regarding transition-related issues, we believe that it is appropriate to change the benchmark index for the I Fund. I am asking for the Board’s approval for the FRTIB to change the I Fund’s benchmark index to MSCI ACWI ex—U.S. Investable Market Index from the current benchmark of MSCI EAFE Index, to be executed by the single investment manager chosen with the next re-compete of investment management.”

To read more about this possible changes, click below.

Proposed I Fund Changes for Thrift Savings Plan

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