Monthly Archives: August 2018

VA Benefits Eligibility

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The VA provides compensation to eligible veterans who were disabled during or because of their military service. Compensation is also available to eligible dependents of veterans.

Compensation Available

Disability—a monthly, monetary benefit paid to veterans who are disabled by injury or disease that was incurred in or aggravated by active military service.

Automobile Allowance—financial assistance to help eligible severely disabled servicemembers and veterans purchase or adapt an automobile to accommodate their disability.

Clothing Allowance—annual stipend provided to disabled veterans who have unique clothing needs because of a service-connected disease or injury.

Disability Compensation

Eligibility

Compensation is a monthly tax-free benefit paid to veterans who are at least 10% disabled due to injuries or diseases that were incurred in or aggravated during active duty or active duty for training. The disability can either be physical or mental.

If you were on inactive duty for training, the disability must have resulted from injury, heart attack, or stroke. And your discharge must not have been under dishonorable conditions.

Compensation varies depending on the degree of disability (see rates here).

Dependents—an additional allowance may be added if your combined disability is rated 30% or greater. Your compensation may be offset if you receive military retirement pay, disability severance pay, or separation incentive payments.

Documenting everything is extremely important! Make sure to always be in contact with your doctor and document everything related to your injury or disease. It is best to submit a VA Disability claim within one year of separation from the military. Doing this makes you eligible to receive VA Disability back pay. However, waiting longer than a year means you will have to meet the burden of proof for your disability.

Learn more about these and other benefits here.

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Taco Tuesday!

It was Taco Tuesday last night as we prepared dinner for the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) here in Lexington, KY!

The Ronald McDonald House is very near and dear to our hearts here at Harris Federal. The son of a member of our firm underwent open heart surgery many years ago in Cincinnati, OH. Their family was able to stay at the RMH located next door to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. His family even enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner during their stay.

We are glad to have the opportunity to give back to such a wonderful organization.

Be sure to check out their website to learn more about how they help families in need.

http://rmhclexington.com/

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The Difference between COLA’s and Pay Raises

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While both costs of living adjustments and pay raises provide an increase in pay, they aren’t that similar.

COLA’s

These pay adjustments are available to retirees. They are a measure of inflation and paid automatically (they don’t need Congressional approval). COLA’s are based on the change of the Consumer Price Index from the 3rd quarter (July -September) of the year that just ended to the 3rd quarter of the preceding year. They are effective December 1st and payable on the 1st business day in January.

CSRS

Civil Service Retirement System retirees get the full COLA amount regardless of age.

FERS

Federal Employee Retirement System retires don’t receive a COLA until age 62 unless you have retired under disability retirement, receive survivor benefits, or retired under special provisions.

If you have a CSRS offset, that part is subject to the CSRS COLA.

The calculation is much different for FERS retirees. You receive a percentage depending on the difference in the CPI amount. If the percentage is above 3%, FERS retirees receive that amount minus 1%. If the COLA amount falls between 2-3%, you receive 2%. And when the increase is 2% or less, the COLA is equal to that amount.

COLA’s are prorated if you retired during the calendar year before the COLA is paid, depending on how many months you were retired that year.

Raises

Raises are for active federal employees and are linked to labor market trends, not cost of living. These are determined through Congress and start with recommendations from the White House (that’s why you always see or hear about pay raises when the president unveils his annual budget requests). They are paid regardless of how long you’ve worked for the federal government. The formula is much more complicated here as the starting point is a measure of private sector wage growth called employee cost index.

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Remember, Document These

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When you file an application for federal disability retirement with the Office of Personnel Management, you must submit a very thorough and complete application. If you don’t your chances for a denial at the initial level may increase. Here are some important pieces of information to include with your application:

Medical Condition

First and foremost, you must show and prove that you do indeed suffer from a medical condition. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a physical condition (cancer, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, spinal stenosis, etc.) or a psychological one (Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, Schizophrenia, etc.). A medical professional, that you are currently treating with, must diagnose you. The condition must also be expected to last at least one year, which is one of the eligibility requirements.

Service Deficiency Correlation

Second, your medical condition must be causing your inability to complete your essential job functions. You must show that you are unable to perform your job because your condition limits you from doing so. It’s very important to have a supportive doctor here, so they can provide you/your agency with an appropriate medical opinion.

No Accommodations

Third, your agency must prove that it was unable to provide you with an accommodation for your condition. For example, if you are a Federal Air Marshal and suffer from IBS and your doctor says you have to be within 20 feet of a restroom at all times, there is no reasonable accommodation available for you that wouldn’t take away the essential elements of your job. There would also be no reassignment you would qualify for here either.

You and your agency must prove to OPM that every effort was made to do this. Medical evidence is also extremely important and can strengthen this part of your application. That’s why it’s so important to have a supportive doctor. It’s a bonus to have a supportive agency.

Social Security

You must show that you have applied for Social Security Disability. This is another eligibility requirement.

Harris Federal Law Firm assists federal employees with their federal disability retirement applications. We have a proven record of success. If you need help or think you may qualify, please call us at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form. The consultation is always FREE.

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Will New Reforms Work?

reformsPresident Trump signed the NDAA—the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. This bill includes reforms that are intended to make it easier for agencies to hire new talent.

One is the authority to hire recent college graduates. The NDAA says, “The head of an agency may appoint, without regard to any provision of sections 3309 through 3319 and 3300, a qualified individual to a position in the competitive service classified in a professional or administrative occupational category at the GS-11 level, or an equivalent level, or below.”

Limits placed on these appointments include; appointees must:

  • Have a baccalaureate or graduate degree from an institution of higher learning
  • Apply for a position within 2 years of receiving a degree (2 years after being discharged from military service for individuals who completed at least 4 years of military service)
  • Meet qualification requirements for the job

The number of appointments in each agency “may not exceed the number equal to 1.5% of the number of individuals that agency head appointed during the previous fiscal year to a position in a competitive service classified in a professional or administrative occupational category, at the GS-11 level, or equivalent level, or below, under a competitive examining procedure.”

The Director of the Office of Personnel Management has authority to lower the limit “based on any factor the Director considers appropriate.”

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Military Pay Boosted

militaryPresident Donald Trump signed a $716 billion defense policy bill boosting military pay by 2.6%, their largest increase in 9 years.

The bill, formally known as the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, will introduce thousands of new recruits to active duty, reserve, and National Guard units, and replace aging tanks, planes, ships and helicopters with more advanced technology.

“Hopefully, we’ll be so strong we’ll never have to use it. But if we ever did, nobody has a chance,” Trump said.

The bill authorizes billions of dollars for military construction, including family housing. Among other domestic and international protections, the bill creates new legal protections for students at the Department of Defense Education Activity schools and requires the school system and the Pentagon to develop new policies for responding to reports on bases more generally.

It also sets policies and budget outlines for the Pentagon and an appropriations bill will later follow.

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New Travel Booking System for DoD

bookingThe Defense Department announced it awarded a $9.3 million contract to a company to develop a replacement for its travel booking system. This would make it easier for Defense Department employees and military personnel to book travel or be reimbursed for official expense.

SAP Concur will create a prototype that will eventually replace the Defense Travel System, which the department described as “aging and inefficient”. The Defense Travel System, which first came online in 2001, is the method by which 70% of Defense Department official travel is booked and accounts for $9 billion in travel spending. It’s also the primary method department employees and members of the military use to file for reimbursement of expenses while on temporary duty assignment.

Officials said they plan to incorporate changes to Joint Travel Regulations to not only make the system easier for employees to use but cheaper. The improvements will include mandating the use of low-cost non-refundable airline tickets in markets where fares are not pre-negotiated and the capability to adopt private-sector travel processes through IT solutions.

A key point of focus for SAP Concur, who specializes in travel and expense management services for businesses and organizations, will be to reduce the “time and effort” needed for defense travelers to use the system.

“We have a responsibility to ensure our resources are used in the most efficient and effective manner, and given this specific project has such a wide-ranging and deep impact—reforms with results like these are critical,” said John Gibson, chief management officer of the Defense Department.

SAP Concur is expected to complete the prototype within 24 months, the department said.

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USPS to Reverse Decision

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The United States Postal Service must reverse a new policy that banned employees from taking unpaid time off to campaign for political candidates, a 3rd party arbitration ruled. The decision came after postal unions challenged the policy as violating their collective bargaining agreements and First Amendment rights.

Postmaster General Megan Brennan announced these changes to leave without pay last year following an independent investigation that found the agency engaged in “systemic violations” of the Hatch Act, leading to an “institutional bias” in favor of certain candidates.

The law prohibits federal employees from engaging in certain political activity while on the clock or in official capacity. Hatch Act violations, reported by the Office of Special Counsel, totaled $90,000 of overtime to cover for employees who took time off to campaign in advance for the 2016 election. “We concluded that the USPS practice of facilitating and directing carrier releases for the unions’ political activity and the use of union official LWOP for such activity resulted in an institutional bias in favor of [the National Association of Letter Carriers] endorsed political candidates and that this violated the Hatch Act,” said Adam Miles. He was acting Special Counsel at the time.

USPS acted to remedy the problem, as OSC directed, which led to a new policy that the agency sent to unions in October 2017.

NALC, American Postal Worker’s Union, and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union collectively brought their challenge before an arbitrator. USPS can not make changes to wages, hours, or working conditions without engaging in negotiations, they argued, meaning the Postal Service was in violation of its CBA’s. The arbitrator ruled OSC’s guidance was non-binding and postal management was still required to bargain over the changes.

“I have found the changes to be inconsistent with the agreement, and as such, they cannot be fair, reasonable and equitable,” arbitrator Stephen Goldberg wrote in his decision. He directed USPS to rescind its policy changes and to “make whole” any employee who was denied LWOP to engage in partisan political activity.

“The award protects employees’ rights to request LWOP to volunteer through their union to participate in important political activities, like the upcoming November elections,” APWU said in a statement. “Postal employees have the legal right to campaign and participate in politics, subject to limits under the Federal Hatch Act.”

In the 2016 election, 97 NALC employees took LWOP to participate in “get out the vote” activities, which led to a complaint to OSC by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc.

Paul Hogrogian, National Postal Mail Handlers Union president said Johnson’s “political pressures” pushed USPS to issue the policy changes in the first place. “Those changes were made unilaterally, and without any bargaining or even consultation with any major postal unions,” Hogrogian said. “Arbitrator Goldberg easily found that these unilateral changes violated the national agreement and ordered that they are rescinded.”

Facility and district managers grant postal workers LWOP requests based on needs of both the employee and the postal service, as well as potential costs to the agency. In the cases in question, HQ didn’t coordinate leave requests with proper staff to ensure employees taking time off wouldn’t be disruptive to local opportunities.

The IG found local supervisors had originally raised concerns about the operational impact of employees’ leave, but they were ignored. In some cases, the employees’ supervisors declined the requests before higher-level managers overruled them. This created “systemic violations” of the Hatch Act, OSC said. The IG found employees disproportionately took time off—about 82% of the cumulative 2,776 days.

Brennan said that the intent wasn’t to create any bias toward a candidate, just to keep the union happy. “It is in our best interest to maintain good relations,” she said since 90% of the USPS workforce is covered by CBA’s.

USC was also careful not to dissuade unions or employees from being politically active. “The postal unions and individual employees and members are permitted, and should be encouraged, to maintain PAC’s endorse candidates, and enlist union members to support their electoral agenda on their own time,” OSC wrote in its report.

The Postal Service is now planning to fight the ruling, it announced. The agency plans to challenge that decision and will ask the Justice Department to intervene on its behalf. “The Postal Service intends to formally request that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia file a petition in federal court seeking to have the arbitration award vacated,” said Dave Partenheimer, an agency spokesman. “We will work closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and are also seeking support and additional guidance from the Office of Special Counsel in connection with that effort.”

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A 2019 COLA Increase?

increase

While the 2019 Cost of Living Adjustment amount won’t be available until mid-October, it is as good of as any to look at the possible COLA increase amount. Based on the current inflation trend, it’s very likely there will be a COLA increase in January 2019.

CPI-W

The Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) increased 3.2% over the last 12 months to an index level of 246.155. However, this does NOT mean COLA recipients will receive a 3.2% increase next January. This index is the one used to calculate the COLA, but the amount isn’t based on a 12-month comparison.

The CPI-W figure for July 2018 was 2.71% higher than the average CPI-W figure for the 3rd quarter of 2017, which is used to determine the 2019 COLA.

Here’s how it works:

  • CPI-W readings are taken from the 3rd quarter (July to September) of the current year
  • Data is compared to the average CPI-W reading form the 3rd quarter of the previous year (2017)
  • The average from the current year (2018) is compared to the figure from the 3rdquarter of 2017
  • If the average goes up in 2018, then the difference, rounded to the nearest 0.1%, is what beneficiaries receive as the 2019 increase
  • If the figure is lower, due to deflation, no adjustment is made

What determines the COLA?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these are the 8 most significant spending areas that have the highest impact on whether beneficiaries of the next COLA will receive an increase:

  • Food and Beverage—cereal, milk, chicken, wine, full-service meals, snacks
  • Housing—rent of primary residence, owner’s equivalent rent, fuel oil, bedroom furniture
  • Apparel—men’s shirts and sweaters, women’s dresses, jewelry
  • Transportation—new vehicles, airline fares, gasoline, motor vehicle insurance
  • Medical Care—prescription drugs, medical supplies, physician’s services, hospital services
  • Recreation—TV’s, toys, pets and pet products, sports equipment, admissions
  • Education and Communication—college tuition, postage, telephone services, computer software and accessories
  • Other Goods and Services—tobacco and smoking products, haircuts and personal services

*This is not an exhaustive list, merely examples.

This calculation doesn’t always work out well for retirees. Medical care is often one of the most important spending costs for COLA recipients; CPI-W doesn’t always consider the higher medical care and housing costs for seniors compared to younger people in the urban and clerical worker category.

COLA beneficiaries received a 2% COLA in 2018, the highest in 6 years.

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USDA Employees Soon May Be Relocated

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Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue announced plans to move 2 subagencies out of the Washington, D.C. area. He said by the end of 2019, employees working for the Economic Research Service (ERS), currently under USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will relocate outside of D.C.

The 2 bureaus include about 700 employees, although it’s unclear how many will move.

“In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers of the United States,” Perdue said.  “In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services.”

He also said he is realigning the Office of the Chief Economist (OCE) to fall under the Office of the Secretary.

Perdue has been very assertive in reshaping his agency. Behind his OneUSDA initiative, he has been taking steps to promote more efficiencies and ensure the effectiveness of the agency. He consolidated the number of agency chief information officers, reduced the number of administrative functions and created more logical reporting structures.

He was also among one of the first agencies to cut back the number of days employees could telework and proposed a 9% cut in the size of the agency’s workforce and a $6 billion decrease in funding for FY2019.

USDA says there are 3 main reasons for moving these 2 offices outside of the D.C. area:

  1. To improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities. The agency says they have experienced significant turnover in these positions, and it’s difficult to recruit employees to D.C.
  2. To place these important USDA resources closer to many of the stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the D.C. area.
  3. Finally, to benefit American taxpayers. There will be significant savings on employment cost and rent, which will allow more benefits from being retained in the long run, even with stricter budgets.

USDA hasn’t determined new locations of these offices and ERS/NIFA could be co-located.

Perdue also said no employees from either bureau will be involuntarily separated. “Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most. Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location,” USDA states. “For those who are interested, USDA is seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for both Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments.”

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