Monthly Archives: April 2018

Important Step Being Forgotten

stepThe Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board (FRTIB) administers the Thrift Savings Plan and they are saying more military service members are opting into the new blended retirement system each month, however, thousands are forgetting an important step.

Around 20,000 participants have opted into the BRS and will receive the automatic 1% contribution from their employing military service, but they haven’t chosen how much they’ll contribute from their own paychecks. Contributions from BRS participants aren’t automatic unless a service member specifically designated them.

Under the system, members automatically receive 1% from their military services, but they can receive up to 5% from their agency depending on how much they choose to contribute from their paychecks.

Individual military services have been automatically enrolling new members to the TSP since January 1, 2018. Current members with 12 years or less of service had to specifically opt-in to use the blended retirement. Those with less than 12 years of service have until December 31, 2018, to decide whether they should stay in the current retirement system or opt into BRS.

About 162,000 service members are missing out of TSP’s full benefits.

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What Employees Should Know About Teleworking

employees

Telework is a subject that has mixed reviews, and because of that, federal employees are hearing many mixed messages. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires agencies to create a telework plan, fulfill certain requirements, and encourage the use of the program.

The Office of Personnel Management conducted a work-life study that determined employees who take advantage of teleworking are more likely to perform at higher levels and be happier in their jobs than those who don’t telework. Still, the Department of Agriculture rolled back telework for more than 32,000 employees.

Below are a few common questions about telework.

Who Has the Ultimate Telework Authority?

OPM doesn’t have much power over telework. It provides policy guidance and consultation to agencies. They also assist agencies in establishing goals, but they can’t dictate telework policy to any agency.

The agencies themselves have more authority because they decide the range of telework possibilities for employees. They decide which positions are eligible for telework and those schedules. Agencies are also responsible for ensuring employees and managers complete telework training programs.

Further, they designate a Telework Managing Officer and ensure every teleworker has a written agreement outlining their specific plan. A TMO is a person within the agency who is accountable for the telework program. This person advises agency leadership and acts as OPM’s point of contact on telework matters. They also set goals and metrics that measure the success of the program.

What Do Supervisors Have Control Over?

Direct authority over employee individual telework agreements lies with the employees’ supervisor. While OPM’s guidance and provisions laid out in the Telework Enhancement Act apply uniformly to all agencies, at the employee level, telework is considered a privilege and is handled on a case by case basis.

Telework is entirely voluntary so supervisors can’t force anyone to participate. Supervisors have the final say over whether an employee can or can’t telework and they are also responsible for making sure teleworking employees are meeting their productivity requirements. Some agencies developed tools that can monitor teleworkers activity to ensure the employee isn’t abusing the program.

Supervisors can also suspend or terminate an employee telework agreement if they think the program is having an adverse effect on the employee or the organization performance.

What if You’re Denied Telework?

When a manager officially denies an employee telework, they must do so in writing, explain the reason for denial and they must include any appeals or grievance procedures. The employee can also contact a telework coordinator, who is responsible for routine implementation of telework at their agency.

Training Requirements for Telework?

Employees are required to complete telework training courses if they wish to participate. Managers must also undergo telework training. OPM makes courses and webcasts available for employees and managers to use in their training, including subjects like telework fundamentals, performance management, dependent care, and how to stay connected to the office.

The management training covers designing a telework program and effectively supervising telework employees.

These training courses seem great, however, a Government Accountability Office study found that 3 of the 4 agencies it looked at had no tool for verifying management had completed its training, nor did they require managers to complete the telework training before approving or denying employee telework requests.

So, Does Telework Have a Positive or Negative Impact?

An OPM report found teleworking employees are more likely to receive an “exceeds fully successful” rating than those who don’t. In addition, those who telework were significantly more satisfied with their job.

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Seasonal NPS Employees May Lose Their Jobs

seasonalIn 1994, the Office of Personnel Management established a rule that agency “subdivisions” can appoint and rehire employees in seasonal jobs, provided they worked less than 1,040 hours during a given service year.

For years, the National Park Service interpreted this rule to be a cap on seasonal workers’ employment at an individual park but allowed and encouraged those workers to double up: work at 1 park for summer months, and a different park during winter. However, this spring, NPS has apparently changed that policy, interpreting the 1,040 hour-per-year rule to be Park Service-wide.

Regional offices have been enforcing that change, which hasn’t been formally announced, by stripping workers of their rehire status, allowing managers to bring back past seasonal workers without going through the competitive hiring process. Enforcement of this has been inconsistent and retroactive.

National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon sent a letter to members of Congress asking for assistance in the matter. According to him, officials in the Pacific West Region are barring employees from future seasonal jobs if they worked more than 1,039 hours in a year since 2014. But the Intermountain Region “has no limit on retroactivity”. Also complicating things is workers weren’t told of their situation until after the competitive hiring deadline passed.

“Some are being told that they can sign up for a 6-month contract and they will be terminated after that; while others are being told that they went over the 1,039-hour cap in the past and are now permanently banned from working in the parks,” Reardon wrote. “[Each] region and each park seem to have its own rules. Apparently, there is no uniform policy in place, so many inconsistent approaches have arisen.”

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New TSA Procedures More Enhanced

proceduresThe Transportation Security Administration launched more comprehensive screening procedures on April 14 at airports around the country. These enhanced procedures have been in testing mode since last summer. They require travelers to place all personal electronics larger than a cell phone in separate bins for X-ray screening in standard lanes. This includes tablets, e-readers, and handheld game consoles.

The TSA said these new procedures will help get clearer X-ray images.

Some travelers may also experience changes in what can be brought through security checkpoints. Food and liquid items complying with the 3-1-1 rule, electronics, and books are still allowed to be in carry-on baggage. However, TSA officials may instruct travelers to separate items such as foods, powders, and any materials that clutter bags and obstruct clear images on the X-ray machine.

TSA said travelers should organize their carry-on bags, so they aren’t’ cluttered to help keep lines moving. Items that can’t be identified at the checkpoint are prohibited from entering the aircraft cabin.

Passengers may experience more bag checks and additional screening of some items with these new procedures. TSA says this is for their own safety and officers should conduct screening with quicker, more targeted procedures. Travelers can also request a private screening.

These new rules don’t apply to travelers enrolled in TSAPre√®.

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FLTCIP Contingency Plan

fltcip

Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program is an insurance plan federal workers can opt into to help with costs of chronic medical conditions and disabilities. The Office of Personnel Management Inspector General recommended that the agency have a backup plan in place for FLTCIP. This comes after an audit of a bid process only produced one application to administer the plan.

OPM didn’t renew its contract in 2015 with John Hancock Life and Health Insurance Company after the company determined it needed to hike up premiums to fully fund FLTCIP. By the end of the bid process, John Hancock was the only bidder to administer the program and it received a new 7-year contract.

In August 2015, John Hancock rolled out new premium increases, and premiums for existing participants increased by an average of 83% in November 2016, after their new contract.

OPM IG said it found the agency followed all federal regulations during its year-long bidding process. It concluded that in the years since FLTCIP was founded in 2000, the market for long-term care insurance has all but evaporated. “In 2000, there were 125 insurers in the Long-term care insurance marketplace,” auditors wrote. “By 2014, there were only 12 insurers that were issuing at least 2,500 individual policies and only 5 insurers sold group policies.”

Only one firm continues to offer a group plan in the form of FLTCIP. John Hancock discontinued the sale of new group policies in 2010. Now, many insurance companies offer a hybrid product that provides long-term care insurance along with either life insurance or an annuity.

Future  FLTCIP Challenges

Because of the shifting marketplace, OPM IG recommended the agency come up with a formal contingency plan in case the program becomes infeasible. John Hancock has stated it intends to “continue to bid on and service the current FLTCIP contract” while OPM noted a provision in the agreement allows the agency to extend the contract beyond its current expiration date and continue to provide service to existing enrollees.

“Considering the rapidly changing environment of the long-term care insurance industry, OPM should develop a contingency plan to prepare for future FLTCIP procurement challenges,” IG wrote. “Although some changes may require regulatory or legislative actions, OPM should be productive in planning for any changes that could arise in the future.”

However, OPM officials pushed back against the idea of developing a formal backup plan for administering FLTCIP, saying the program is contractually guaranteed to continue and that agency staff is in “regular contact with John Hancock to monitor the program and its funding status”.

“In short, OPM continually monitors the performance of FLTCIP through standards agreed upon in the contract,” the agency stated. “OPM recognizes the evolving state of the long-term care industry and has been proactive in monitoring the programs’ performance while engaging in meaningful dialogue and analysis to best position the program for the future.”

Recommendations

The IG said having a formal plan in place would ensure continuity for participants in case something unforeseen happens, especially given that Congress would need to sign off on any major change to the program.

“Although these are ‘what if’ scenarios, any potential changes to the product or discontinuance of the current product in the future would require significant planning and work with Congress to potentially change legislation,” the OIG wrote. “OPM should position itself with the ability to permanently suspend the enrollment to new enrollees, should the need arise. Preplanning and road-mapping potential future changes will ensure continuity for the FLTCIP enrollees.”

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OPM Disability vs. Social Security Disability

securityThe Federal Employees Retirement System has 3 components: the FERS basic benefit, Social Security benefit, and the Thrift Savings Plan benefit. Because Social Security is one component, often it can be confusing how each one affects the other and how they are related to one another. This becomes especially true if you become disabled and need disability benefits. The following will help you understand how these 2 programs relate to one another.

Requirements

FDR:

  • You need to 18 months of creditable federal civilian service to qualify for federal disability retirement, and you must have become disabled in a position while in federal service
  • The disability must last at least one year
  • Your agency must certify that it is unable to accommodate your medical condition in your current position and it has considered you for any vacant position in the same agency at the same grade and pay level, within the same commuting area, for you which you are qualified for reassignment
  • You, or your legal guardian, must apply before your separation of service, or with one year
  • You must apply for Social Security benefits

Social Security:

  • You must suffer from a long-term (1 year or more) or permanent disability that completely prevents you from performing any type of work. It’s a total and permanent disability benefit awarded when you can’t complete gainful employment.

Amount

FDR:

  • You receive 60% of your High-3 salary the first year on federal disability retirement and then 40% of your High-3 every year after that, until age 62.
  • Because this type of disability retirement is considered “occupational” and not total or permanent, you can work in the private sector and earn up to 80% of your current salary in any position within your doctors’ restrictions.

Social Security:

  • The dollar amount you receive is based on taxes you’ve paid throughout your working life.

**You may have the situation where you receive approval for both benefits. In this case, they offset. Social Security becomes the primary benefit and you receive those payments in full, but your federal disability retirement payments will be reduced by a percentage of Social Security.

Example:

  • 1st year=FDR-100%SSD
  • 2nd year=FDR-60%SSD

Having both these benefits usually results in a higher annuity, but it severely restricts your earnings potential because it completely cuts out the option of being able to earn up to 80% of your salary in the private sector.

If you think you qualify for federal disability retirement, give us a call at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form.

Also, check out the following resources for more information:

Federal Disability Retirement and Social Security Offsets

Simple FERS Federal Disability Offset Chart

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VA Cut Central Office Positions by 10%

central

The Veterans Affairs Department says it has cut positions at its central office in Washington DC by 10% while also consolidating mental health, primary care and geriatrics policy, and operations functions. This comes as part of the departments’ efforts to eliminate bureaucracy and streamline decision making and remove itself from the Government of Accountability Offices’ biennial High-Risk List.

The agency recently submitted a comprehensive plan to GAO outlining the VA’s efforts to address 5 specific risk areas highlighted on the High-Risk List.

Former VA Secretary David Shulkin kept a hiring freeze in place for sr. positions at the department’s central office and required undersecretary approval for administrative positions at the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Veterans Health Administration.

They also closed the central office’s human resources function last year to move more customer-facing positions out of Washington and to consolidated filed offices.

In addition to VA’s efforts to cut unnecessary positions and functions from the central office, the department said its High-Risk removal plan includes 4 other broad areas:

  • Reducing ambiguity and red tape
  • Strengthening internal oversight and accountability
  • Modernizing information tech support
  • Clarifying resource needs and priorities

VHA also implemented a new Office of Integrity to improve accountability. This new office is consolidating its compliance, ethics, and oversight programs into 1 and it will lead a governance committee to advise the VHA undersecretary on best practices for evaluating current operations. Many of VA’s efforts to address its High-Risk challenges stem from its reorganization plan.

Paul Lawrence, the president’s nominee to lead the VBA, helped the department design its response last year to the administration’s reorganization executive order. “This [experience] helped me enhance my perspective on driving change and collaborating with the Office of Management and Budget,” Lawrence told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “What is differentiating about my experience as a consultant to the federal government is I’ve conducted extensive research into how the government is managed by Sr. leaders.”

He said he’s collected best management practices from his interviews with sr. agency leaders and he plans to apply those lessons to the job at VBA. He also plans to manage his workforce by identifying the root cause and a solution spread that message to many employees, and reinforce that message with training.

“Leading the VBA can be a challenge, even for those who have the best skill set for managing a complex administration,” Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont) said. “Challenges such as leading the more than 23,000 personnel in the critically important division of the VA where morale has been a concern and firing folks cannot be one of the first instincts when dealing with employee matters.”

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 250,000 VA employees, is concerned about these challenges. It wrote that the VBA has “unreasonable and counterproductive performance standards” which is seriously impacting employee morale.

“These standards harm veterans by grossly valuing quantity over quality and do not accurately measure employee performance,” Thomas Kahn, AFGE director of legislative affairs wrote in a letter. “These standards force employees to treat veterans like widgets instead of the warriors they are.”

The Senate Committee is scheduled to vote on Lawrence’s’ nomination Wednesday, April 18th.

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New Task Force Formed at USPS

taskPresident Trump signed an executive order to establish a task force to study the ailing finances of the United States Postal Service. The Postal Service has been losing money going on 11 straight years. The total losses each fiscal year have been in the billions, with the latest report for 2017 saying the agency incurred a $2.7 billion net loss.

Trump said in this executive order that the Postal Service needs to be restructured to avoid a “taxpayer-funded bailout”. The 2019 White House’s budget proposal noted that Postal employee benefits costs are one of the primary factors weighing on the agency. It said the Postal Service must be “given the ability to address their expenses—including the cost of personnel—and take appropriate actions to balance service levels with revenue. USPS must also have the flexibility to raise the revenue necessary to support their operations.”

USPS welcomed these possible changes saying, “An open and transparent review process in which the perspectives of all stakeholders are fully represented to develop reform proposals could benefit American businesses and consumers.”

Task Force

The task force will evaluate the finances and operations of the Postal Service. It will be chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury or his designee. It will include the Office of Management and Budget Director, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, and any other department or agency head the chair may designate.

Objectives

The task force will look at the expansion and pricing of the package delivery market, decline in mail volumes, and the state of the Postal Services business model. Then it will make recommendations for administrative and legislative reforms that take into consideration the views of the Postal Services workforce and Postal outcomes.

The task force will be dissolved after meeting its objectives.

Many key lawmakers believe the steps and others taken in the bill would provide significant, immediate relief to the agency. “I welcome President Trump’s engagement on this important issue and urge him to provide the leadership that is needed to finally get these reforms over the finish line,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, author of the Senate bill and Congress’ top advocate for Postal reform. “What we don’t need though is to waste more time studying a problem that we already know exists. We know that the Postal Service’s financial situation is in a downward spiral. We know we need to act now.”

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The Number of Dog Attacks is Down for 2017

attacksData released by the Postal Service shows that the number of dog attacks on Postal employees declined last year vs. 2016. Last year, there were 6,244 attacks, which was 500 less than in 2016.

“We’re encouraged by the decrease in dog attacks,” USPS Safety Director Linda DeCarlo in San Diego said. “The totals are still too high, but we’re confident that with continuing education and dog bite prevention training, along with advancing technology, we can keep more people safe and keep attacks trending downward.”

The Postal Service is asking homeowners on the package pickup application if a dog is present at the delivery address as one measure to prevent dog attacks. This information is provided to mail carriers on the delivery scanners which send alerts if an unleashed dog is reported in a delivery area.

“The scanners that our carriers use to confirm a customers’ delivery include a feature for them to indicate the presence of a dog at an individual address,” said DeCarlo. “This information is particularly helpful for substitute carriers who fill in for regular carriers on their days off.”

Here are the top 10 cities for attacks in 2017:

  1. Houston—71
  2. Los Angeles—67
  3. Louis—52
  4. Cleveland—49
  5. San Diego—46
  6. Baltimore and San Antonio—44
  7. Columbus—43
  8. Dallas—40
  9. Louisville—39
  10. Chicago—38

Postal Service employees are one of the biggest groups of federal employees we work with. If you have been attacked by a dog and can no longer perform your essential job duties, don’t hesitate to give us a call at 877-226-2723 and set up a FREE consultation. You can also fill out this INQUIRY form.

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New Focus a Possibility at OPM

background

The security clearance woes of this administration have been in the spotlight recently. So, it’s no surprise that the White House is considering a major overhaul of the entire background investigation program.

Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget Director, met with officials from the Office of Director of National Intelligence, the Defense Department, and the Office of Personnel Management to discuss another potential change in personnel security, the third in 18 months.

“The administration is committed to transforming the way in which background investigations are conducted to improve timeliness, to best protect our most sensitive information, and ensure a trusted workforce,” OMB and OPM said in a joint statement. “The administration is actively analyzing the government impacts of current plans for DOD to assume responsibility for its own investigations and will soon make a decision on the future of the government-wide program that is consistent with our efforts to improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of government.”

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act paved the way for the DOD to take back control of its own investigations, a job it held it held in 2005 when the program was moved to OPM in response to cost overruns, major delays, and a large backlog. Congress has already approved the workload shift back to DOD, however, some members have questioned the redundancy with the 2 programs—OPM’s National Background Investigations Bureau and Defense—performing the same functions for different government customers.

The White House shares this concern and is weighing the option to move the entire background investigations program to Defense. “The frequency of change and the willingness to allow politics versus history to drive decision making continues to undermine a program struggling to find solid terra firma to build a plan that would address the backlog of over 725,000 background investigations,” Merton Miller, former deputy director of NBIB said.

Another concern with both OPM and Defense conducting background investigations is that both agencies struggle to hire and maintain an investigator workforce. NBIB currently employs more than 7,200 contract and federal background investigators. Hiring, training, and retaining those investigators is a major cause of the current delays and backlogs.

The program began in 2014 when OPM decided to cancel its contract with U.S. Investigation Services after a cyber-attack compromised government worker files. That decision resulted in a 65% reduction in investigation capacity overnight. If the White House decides to transfer NBIB functions to Defense, there’s also a question of whether the bureau’s 7,200 investigators will make the move as well.

New Focus at OPM

In addition to proposals to eliminate OPM’s background investigation functions, there’s another proposal to move OPM’s Human Resources Solutions, which provides HR services to agencies on a consulting basis to the General Services Administration. Moving 2 major divisions would cut OPM’s mission by 25%.

Because OPM shares administrative functions across programs, the decision to move these programs would have an immediate impact on the budget, workforce, and influence of OPM.

Some agencies that conduct their own investigations would likely remain independent—including CIA, FBI, and State Department. But Defense would move into a service-provider role for a variety of other agencies that depend on NBIB as their service provider.

“The dependence every federal agency and the department will have on DOD will have a devastating impact on their ability to influence policy, affect performance, and ensure program transparency,” Miller said.

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