Monthly Archives: December 2018

Security Clearances Will Move to the DoD

security

The Department of Defense and the Office of Personnel Management will merge 2 offices and move 2,000 federal employees and more than 600,000 security clearances cases. The new office will be established under the Defense Security Service by October 1, 2019. The office will absorb the National Background Investigations Bureau.

NBIB was created to handle most background investigations and DoD built secure infrastructure to maintain those operations, called the National Background Investigations Services System.

The backlog hit a peak of 725,000 in April 2018, so Congress ordered NBIB to transfer investigations to DSS rather than split the work between the 2 agencies.

“We were working through the process of splitting out of an enterprise and there’s risk associated with that,” Director for Defense Intelligence Garry Reid said. “This is actually much more streamlined for us from an efficiency standpoint.”

The Defense Department makes up 70% of the clearance caseload.

The 2 offices are working on details on how to best utilize physical and human resources, but have yet to start the process, pending an executive order from the President.

“Below the sr. staff levels, I know that employees at both agencies are concerned about their jobs, their duty locations, their change in command,” DSS Director Dan Payne said. “I am committed to minimizing the disruption to both field workforces—the people on the ground doing the work and accomplishing our mission…We are integrating 2 organizations into DSS while simultaneously automating and changing operational processes and procedures. Everyone at this table recognizes these complexities and are resolute in ensuring it is done successfully.”

Tagged , , , ,

Retirees and Medicare Part D

MEDICARE

Medicare Part D is a voluntary prescription drug program for Medicare beneficiaries. It gives access to retail outpatient prescription drugs at reduced rates. Retirees in the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program often wonder whether they should sign up for Part D.

Eligibility

To be eligible to enroll in a Part D drug plan as a standalone plan, a beneficiary must live in the plan’s service area and be enrolled in either Medicare Parts A and/or B. Enrollees pay a monthly premium set by the plan. There are usually many options to choose from and premiums can range from as little as $10/month to $150/month.

Most enrollees will pay just the plan premium for Part D; however, some will pay more because they are in a higher income bracket. Those who filed individual tax returns earning more than $85,000, or couples filing jointly who earned more than $170,000 will pay a fee referred to as Income-Related Monthly Adjustment Amount.

FEHB vs. Medicare Part D

Medicare Part D is voluntary because not everyone needs prescription drug coverage. FEHB retirees are a great example because the Office of Personnel Management has determined that the prescription medication coverage under FEHB is as good as Medicare Part D. So, it may not be beneficial for someone to enroll in Part D because they would pay monthly premiums for a stand-alone Part D plan plus any calculated adjustments if they happen to fall in a higher income bracket.

Note—Because any FEHB coverage is considered creditable coverage, a person will have the opportunity down the road to enroll in Part D without owing a late penalty if that creditable FEHB coverage has been maintained. This will only change with lost FEHB coverage. If that happens, be sure to enroll in a Part D plan within 63 days of losing that coverage so that there are no penalties.

Advantage Plans

Some Medicare beneficiaries choose to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan that includes Part D. Some of those plans offer $0 premiums and additional benefits like Part B premium reduction, gym membership, or ancillary coverage for dental and vision care. Benefits are subject to change from year to year on these plans, however.

OPM’s website states, “when you enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan, you may not need FEHB coverage because the Medicare Advantage plan will provide you with many of the same benefits. You should review the Medicare Advantage plan benefits carefully before making a decision to suspend or cancel FEHB coverage.”

OPM’s site also states that if someone suspends FEHB coverage for an Advantage plan, they may re-enroll in FEHB if they later lose or cancel that plan.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Return a Govt.-Issued Device During a Furlough?

device

The Office of Management and Budget released guidance last year allowing agencies to set their own guidance for mobile devices so long as they don’t rely on the phones to call employees back to work. Different agencies have different policies on phone use during a shutdown/furlough. For example, some agencies require employees to turn in their device until they return to work, and some allow employees to take the device with them.

Here’s what some agencies require, or allow, of employees:

Agriculture Department—guidance updated December 2017

Employees aren’t required to turn in their device, however, employees are prohibited from using their government-issued devices “for communication during a shutdown for official business other than for the purposes of shutdown or as required by the secretary.”

Commerce Department—guidance updated in 2015

Employees can hang onto their devices through a shutdown. The list of excepted IT requirements and contracts specifically lists “mobile devices (iPhones, iPads)” and “desktops/laptops” as immune.

Homeland Security Department—guidance updated March 2018

Employees can hang onto their devices but only use them to check the status of the shutdown. The contingency plan explicitly states any other use could be prohibited by law.

“During a hiatus, non-exempt personnel may continue to retain and monitor their DHS issued electronic devices for status updates and emergency notifications from their supervisors or other management officials; however, employees are prohibited from using this equipment for any other purposes (e.g. employees may only use their DHS electronic devices for one-way communication to monitor the status of the furlough, which is strictly an option…Failure to follow this policy may result in a violation of law, specifically the ADA, which has a criminal component and may result in severe penalties.”

Exempt employees can continue to use their government-issued devices to do their jobs.

Housing and Urban Development Department—guidance updated January 2018

This agency prohibits the use of government-issued devices in no certain terms.

“When in a furlough status, you are prohibited from using HUD provided devices (such as laptops, iPads, cell phones) during a furlough,” the guidance says.

Employees also cannot connect to HUD’s remote apps such as agency email or HUDmobile.

Interior Department—guidance updated December 2017

Their guidance leaves it up to each component leader to decide whether to collect devices or not.

“Some may choose, for example, to include in orderly shutdown activities a requirement that furloughed employees turn in their Blackberries until they return to the office; others may determine that circumstances warrant a different approach,” the guidance states.

The guidance also warns managers that employees need not rely on personal devices to access work email to find out whether the shutdown is over.

State Department—guidance updated March 2018

Employees can hang onto their devices during a shutdown but must turn them off. Excepted personnel working through a shutdown should not be in communication with non-excepted employees on furlough.

Tagged , , , ,

Telework Limits Proposed By DHHS

proposed

The Department of Health and Human Services had proposed limiting telework to 1 day a week or potentially eliminating the program altogether. The Department and the National Treasury Employees Union are in final negotiations, as mandated by the Federal Service Impasse Panel. The Panel asserts jurisdiction over the collective bargaining process.

NTEU objects to these changes. They have a deadline of Saturday, Dec. 22nd and then they will submit their final offers and justifications to the Panel and a new contract will be struck.

HHS wants to limit telework access to 1 day a week. Currently, there is no cap. The proposal also allows the department to cancel unilaterally any scheduled telework day for almost any reason without notice and require that employee come into the office.

HHS’s proposal states:

“[The] employer reserves the right to require more frequent days at the official worksite and duty station and to recall employees without prior notification from scheduled telework days for situations deemed appropriate by the employer, either planned or unplanned, including, but not limited to, office assignments, meetings, absence of other employees, emergency situations, training, classes, business reasons, operational demands, or mission-related needs. [Furthermore], in such instances, the telework day is forfeited, and the employee is not entitled to substitute another telework day.”

The agency’s initial proposal would’ve gotten further but negotiators stripped language at NTEU’s request that would’ve barred employees form telework is they were absent on another day of the week, for any reason, including official holidays.

Tony Reardon, NTEU president, criticized the proposal and thinks it could lead to a mass exodus from the agency.

“Telework is a smart, cost-effective workplace policy that has been shown to increases productivity, cut administrative and real estate costs, and reduce traffic congestion,” he said. “Arbitrarily eliminating telework would have a devastating impact on current workers and likely risks skilled workers running for the exits and turning down job offers and will certainly make the U.S. government an outdated employer.”

Members of Congress have caught wind of this and wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar asking the department to reverse its thinking in its negotiations. The agency has been accused of (by lawmakers and union officials) of bargaining in bad faith with NTEU, engaging in “surface level” bargaining without a desire to reach an agreement so they can “check boxes” in the process to reach the Impasse Panel.

“Because the 2 parties have not reached a true impasse, I urge HHS to bargain in good faith with NTEU to resolve these disagreements,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) wrote. “HHS’ actions throughout this process fit the administration’s disturbing pattern of hostility toward federal employees and the labor organization that represent them.”
Tagged , , , , ,

Scheduled Leave and a Shutdown

leave

If you’ve booked a vacation between Christmas and New Year’s, you may find yourself using unpaid leave. If Congress cannot reach a deal to fund the government in the next 10 days, then that’s what could happen.

Congressmen have until Friday, December 21st to come to an agreement to fund agencies and departments that don’t already have full-year appropriations. If they cannot, there will be a partial government shutdown. Those still waiting for funding include the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, State, Interior, Agriculture, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, and Justice.

If an agreement is not met, here’s what could happen if you have previously scheduled time off:

You cannot substitute paid leave for furloughs if the government is closed. Meaning, if you already scheduled leave, whether, for vacation or medical leave, those paid days off would be canceled during a shutdown. You would be forced to accept an unpaid furlough.

Congress does often retroactively approve shutdown pay for furloughed workers. Those who took vacation during their furloughs could eventually get paid for the days they were absent; however, those days won’t be counted as vacation time.

If you deemed essential by your agency, the outlook isn’t so positive. In this case, your scheduled leave would be canceled during a shutdown and you would have to come to work or be labeled “Absent Without Official Leave”.

The Office of Personnel Management offered guidance and there are some flexibilities allowing managers to let essential employees use telework or alternative work schedules when they must be absent for “brief or intermittent periods”. If these programs cant sufficiently accommodate you or your agency, the agency must furlough you for the time you miss.

Tagged , , , ,

Best Places to Work

places

The “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings are out, and the Office of Personnel Management reported a slight upswing in government employee engagement—68% in 2018. However, satisfaction fell to 59%.

Partnership for Public Service released the annual Best Places to Work rankings. Overall, about 40% of agencies and subcomponents saw a rise in employee engagement this year. For the past 3 years, more than 70% of federal organizations made improvements so the rankings are quite different this year.

“This year’s rankings tell the tale of 2 governments,” Max Stier, President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service said. “One of part of our government has agencies with committed leaders who are fostering high and improving levels of employee engagement. The other part of our government is handicapped by a lack of leadership that has led to static or declining employee engagement.”

By the Numbers

According to the Partnership’s rankings, there were some notable drops in employee satisfaction:

  • The Agriculture Department score dropped 6.9%
  • Education Department’s score fell more than 12%
  • Engagement at the State Department fell 3.3%
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau saw satisfaction fall by more than 25%
  • Just 38% of employees rated the Environmental Protection Agency as favorable this year, a 7% drop over last year

These drops partly could be because USDA announced changes to its telework program requiring all employees to work form the office at least 4 days a week. And the Department of Education suddenly ended collective bargaining negotiations with the American Federation of Government Employees.

Employee satisfaction dropped tremendously at the Federal Labor Relations Authority (31%) and the National Labor Relations Board (12.6%). The Merit Systems Protection Board, which lacks a quorum, had employee satisfaction fall 4.3%.

The Department of Veterans Affairs chose not to participate in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey this year and instead, administered its own survey. Their survey included some of the same questions included in FEVS, so the department could continue to be a part of the Partnership’s rankings. Their engagement score was 64.2 for 2018, compared to 56.1 last year. The agency was not eligible to compete for the “most improved” agency and didn’t include its data in the calculation of the 2018 government-wide score. If it had, VA would likely earn the “most improved” agency title this year.

Here are the top 10 Large, Mid-Size, and Small agency rankings:

Large Agencies

  1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  2. Department of Health and Human Services
  3. Department of Commerce
  4. Department of Transportation
  5. Intelligence Community
  6. Department of Veterans Affairs
  7. Office of the Secretary of Defense
  8. Department of the Nave
  9. Department of the Interior
  10. Department of Justice

Mid-Size Agencies

  1. Federal Trade Commission
  2. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
  3. Securities and Exchange Commission
  4. Government Accountability Office
  5. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  6. Peace Corps
  7. Smithsonian Institution
  8. National Science Foundation
  9. Architect of the Capitol
  10. General Services Administration

Small Agencies

  1. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
  2. S. International Trade Commission
  3. Congressional Budget Office
  4. Farm Credit Administration
  5. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
  6. National Transportation Safety Board
  7. Office of Management and Budget
  8. National Endowment of the Humanities
  9. Federal Maritime Commission
  10. Overseas Private Investment Corporation

For a full list and summary, click here.

Tagged , , , ,

improper

The Office of Personnel Management’s Inspector General released a report saying that even though the overall portion is small, Civil Service Retirement System improper payments are still considered to be “high-risk”.

OPM overpaid $82.9 billion to 2.6 million federal annuitants and survivor annuitants under CSRS and the Federal Employee Retirement System. The payments are made from the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund, in which federal employees and taxpayers each contribute.

The overall improper payment rate for these retirement programs is 0.38%. Per the IG, the total amount of all types of improper retirement payments reported by OPM was $313.8 million, and of that, $238.7 million were overpayments.

The amount of underpayments was $75.1 million, representing 0.09%.

While these numbers are small, the IG says they still represent a “high-risk” because of the antiquated IT systems at OPM. “OPM’s systems were not designed or built to perform analysis of vast quantities of data…it [OPM’s Retirement Service office] is unable to provide the level of granularity needed to fulfill OMB A-136 reporting requirements,” the report said.

The IG wasn’t optimistic in the report…

“[We] continue to believe that the process for conducting projects and reviews such as those described above, and for reporting and following up on the results, needs to be improved. In addition, the need for continuing innovation in the analysis of available information on annuity payments is never-ending. The OIG spends a significant amount of time and resources identifying, assessing, and investigating retirement cases where a single deceased annuitant was improperly paid over 5, 10, or even 20 years. It is clear that not all improper payments are being identified in a timely manner. Furthermore, we continue to conclude that Retirement Services lacks a comprehensive centralized tracking system to record and analyze its program integrity work and lacks appropriate internal control procedures to timely detect, identify, and report potential fraud, waste, and abuse.”

Improper “High-Risk” Payments

Tagged , , , , ,

USPS Task Force Report

taskThe United States Postal Service Task Force was created through an executive order by President Trump to fix the Postal Services’ finances. They issued their long-awaited report with their findings and recommendations.

Flawed Finances

bailout of taxpayers will be needed if the USPS doesn’t right its finances at some point. The Task Force shared this concern saying that the USPS is on an “unsustainable financial path” losing money every year for over 10 years.

“The USPS’ current business model has become outdated due to changes in technology, markets, and customer needs and preferences. It is unsustainable and must be fundamentally changed if the USPS is to avoid a financial collapse and a taxpayer-funded bailout,” the report stated.

The report also pointed out that a large part of their financial troubles come from its outdated business model which “was sustainable in an era where mail volumes and revenues grew alongside population and economic growth.” However, with the shift to digital correspondence, revenues are falling.

Recommendations

The Task Force made several recommendations to help USPS reverse this path they’re on.

Retiree Health Benefits

Many think USPS’ financial problems would disappear if the pre-funding requirement for USPS retiree benefits was removed by Congress. The report addressed this and noted, “USPS has been the one civilian entity that is statutorily required to pay OPM directly for the cost of its retiree health benefits.” USPS has defaulted on these payments to maintain normal operations.

The Task Force, despite popular opinion, does not think USPS should change this. The report states:

“The Task Force does not believe that this general policy [funding retiree health benefits] should change or that the liability for USPS retiree health benefits should be shifted to the taxpayers. The Task Force believes that this obligation, including the $43 billion in pre-funding payments that the USPS failed to pay into the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund and the unfunded actuarial liability for retiree health benefits, must be restructured with the payments re-amortized with a new actuarial calculation based on the population of employees at or near retirement age.”

Here are other recommendations the Task Force had instead.

Labor Costs and Pensions

Recommendations were made with respect to the USPS labor model. “The USPS has over $126 billion in unfunded worker liabilities stemming from its pensions ($43.5 billion), retiree health benefits ($66.5 billion), and the federal workers’ compensation program ($16.4 billion).”

The Force recommended that the Postal Service remove employee compensation from collective bargaining. The report said:

“Doing so would enable the USPS to address the costs and complications with its current labor system and allow for better workforce planning and cost control within its rapidly evolving business model. In the meantime, the USPS should take immediate action where current statutory authority exists, including, but not limited to, aligning collective bargaining agreements with these principles USPS should not be afforded protections and rights not enjoyed by other federal employees.”

They also think Postal Employee salaries should be more closely aligned with the private sector.

Click here to read more about some new opportunities the Task Force recommends.

Tagged , , , ,

The Upcoming Tax Season May Have Challenges

tax

Last December, President Trump signed the latest tax reform law, and most of those changes will take effect in the upcoming filing season. The challenge? IRS still doesn’t have all the guidance it needs for full implementation, and it continues to face challenging cuts to its workforce and budget.

Dennis Ventry Jr., Chairman of the IRS Advisory Council (IRSAC) said, “Tax reform implementation this year was just a nightmare. Their personnel had to work on reform this year when they otherwise would’ve been working on something else. So, in some respects, it was a lost year when it came to the initiatives that the IRS was currently working on.”

For the last 7 years, Congress has cut the IRS’ annual budget by 16%.

IRSAC wrote in its report that these cuts “have meant less of everything from personnel to training to taxpayer assistance to enforcement activities to compliance to systems modernization and, ultimately, to tax revenue.”

IRS employees continue to receive guidance on implementing the tax reform law; the season begins in January.

“Guidance is still trickling out and I’m not even sure they’re going to have all the guidance out by the end of the year,” he said.

Expressed Concerns

The Treasury Inspector General on Tax Administration (TIGTA) expressed concerns that the 2019 filing season could face delays due to workload and missed IT deadlines.  They estimated it would take more than a million work hours to update 450 forms and 140 IT systems in time for the tax season.

National Treasury Employees union agrees with IRSAC about IRS’ budget. “The opening of the new tax filing season is around the corner and front-line IRS employees are worried that they will not be fully trained on the massive changes to the new tax code,” Tony Reardon, NTEU National President said. “Taxpayers and business owners are going to demand quick and accurate answers to their questions, and the agency needs 2019 appropriations to help hire, train, and equip them to be ready.”

Tagged , , , ,