Tag Archives: federal employee benefits

USDA to Continue SNAP Benefits

snap

The Department of Agriculture has come up with a plan and budget to ensure Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits continue to pay out through February.

“President Donald Trump directed the Office of Management and Budget and USDA to determine a way to fully fund all the SNAP through the month of February, and we will do just that,” Secretary Sonny Perdue said.

Brandon Lipps, acting Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS) said the agency can keep providing benefits because of a provision in the last continuing resolution, allowing USDA program operations like SNAP and child nutrition programs to incur new obligations within 30 days of the continuing resolution’s expiration.

USDA has until January 20th to pay out February SNAP benefits.

“The funds that we’re advising you today that we will be using are appropriated from the continuing resolution that expired on December 21, and so will not need to be appropriated in a future bill,” Lipps said.

Section 110 of the resolution states “funds shall be available for entitlements and other mandatory payments under the 2008 Food and Nutrition Act until 30 days after the resolution expires.

USDA has also provided early SNAP benefits to states impacted by natural disasters and follows the same template to pay out benefits during the shutdown.

“If you look at the past hurricane seasons when states are aware that a hurricane is headed toward their state, they work with us to request the ability to issue their benefits early as a lot of people evacuate their state. They will want to take those benefits with them and use them wherever they go,” Lipps said. He went on to say that he knows “this is a time of great uncertainty and no doubt some anxiety for the people who rely on SNAP in dealing with tough times. I hope that it’s reassuring for us to make clear today that we’re committed to maintaining service to SNAP clients without interruption to the extent possible under the law.”

USDA has encouraged states to request early issuance of February SNAP benefits before the January 20th deadline.

New households can still sign up for SNAP benefits as well.

The department has also identified prior year-end funds that will allow Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programs to operate through February.

USDA functions such as food safety inspections and national forest law enforcement remain in effect during the shutdown.

Perdue said the stopgap solution serves USDA’s motto of “Do right and feed everyone”.

“At the president’s direction, we’ve been working with OMB on this solution. It works and is legally sound, and we want to assure sates and SNAP recipients that the benefits for February will be provided,” Perdue said.

If the shutdown continues into February, its possible SNAP and WIC benefits could be disrupted for March.

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News Regarding Pay for Feds

news

Federal employees facing missing check Friday. Major media reported on the situation for federal employees who are facing a coming payday in which they may not be paid. NBC Nightly News (1/9, story 5, 1:30, Holt, 8.42M) reported, “For millions of Americans, the shutdown is far more than a political fight in Washington.” NBC (Costello) added, “Among those working without pay: the very Secret Service agents protecting the President, US Customs and Border Patrol, marshals, ATF, DEA, most NASA employees, 14,000 air traffic controllers, 51,000 TSA officers. All should receive back pay once the government reopens, though that could be awhile.” NBC also reported “hundreds of thousands of FDA food inspectors” are on furlough, while “a support network is recommending garage sales for furloughed members of the Coast Guard.” NBC added that according to the TSA union, “some officers are starting to quit as they’re unlikely to be paid on Friday.”

The CBS Evening News (1/9, story 2, 2:05, Glor, 6.18M) reported, “So many workers could be forced to live off savings and what’s left from their last paycheck.” CBS (Werner) featured a federal corrections officer who is “making a stream of non-stop phone calls to try to hold the banks at bay. He hasn’t gotten a paycheck since December 29, and he doesn’t expect to get one any day soon.”

The New York Times (1/9, Tavernise, 17.59M) reports that as paychecks for federal employees “begin to stop, the negative effects threaten” the Washington area. The Times adds that Washington “boasts one of the country’s richest, strongest economies, powered by government spending and a large, stable federal workforce.” The Times cites George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller saying that if it is over “before February, the economic effect on the overall region would be minimal.” The Times adds, “for many federal workers, Friday would be the first day without a paycheck.” It also reports, “Many federal workers said they had savings and could manage, at least for now.”

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How Will the Shutdown Affect YOUR Retirement?

shutdown

We are now in week 3 of the partial government shutdown. We are also in a new year, which means this time is a popular one for federal employee retirements. More than 300,000 federal employees are on furlough without the guarantee of back pay, and an additional 500,000 are working but facing a delay in their paychecks.

Due to the end of the year being a popular time to retire, some employees have spent their last days “working” in a furlough status. The Office of Personnel Management has issued guidance on furloughs and their effect on retirement planning, paperwork processing, and benefits. This information is also important for those wanting to apply for federal disability retirement, or who are waiting on their application to be processed by OPM. Below are some highlights from the guidance.

  • Retirement planning—a furlough period in a non-pay status is treated as a period of leave without pay. Employees receive credit for LWOP periods up to 6 months in a calendar year without impact on their service credit for retirement or their High-3 average salary.
  • Retirement effective during a furlough period—employees will be credited with service through their effective date of retirement as if there was no furlough. For example, if the effective retirement date was December 31, 2018, an employee will receive service credit through the end of business that day but not beyond that.
  • It’s important to keep in mind there may be a delay in the processing of retirement applications because the employees responsible for finalizing retirement packages may be furloughed. That also means retirement applications can’t be sent to OPM.
  • Lump sum payments for annual leave at affected agencies will be delayed until funds are available.
  • Retirees will receive the cost of living adjustment in their retirement payment on January 1st.

Benefits/Insurance

Employees currently enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program will continue their enrollment for up to 1 year in a non-pay status with the government continuing to pay its share. The effective date of an Open Season enrollment change will be unaffected by the shutdown.

Federal Employee Group Life Insurance continues to pay for 1 year for those in a non-pay status, without cost to the employee.

Coverages of expenses under flexible spending accounts won’t be reimbursed until the employee returns to pay status.

Any eligible dependent care expenses incurred during the non-pay status may be reimbursed up to whatever balance is in the employees’ dependent care account, so long as the expenses incurred during the non-pay status allow the employee to work, look for work, or attend school full-time.

Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program coverage continues if premiums are paid.

Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program coverage will continue but employees will get a direct bill for past due premiums if no premium is paid for 2 consecutive pay periods.

As far as the Thrift Savings Plan is concerned, employees can make inter-fund transfers of their existing account balance during the furlough period and, may be entitled to make up contributions when they return to pay status.

There should be little effect on Social Security checks. Most Social Security offices are open and are processing payments because the agency has full-year funding already.

The shutdown may be in full swing but that doesn’t mean you should wait to file a federal disability retirement application if you can no longer work in your current job due to an injury or illness. If you need help doing so, please don’t hesitate to call us and set up a FREE consultation with us. Call us at 877-226-273 or fill out this INQUIRY form.

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Furloughed=Unemployed?

unemployment

With the government shutdown going on 2 weeks, furloughed federal employees may not start the year off with a paycheck. While it’s likely furloughed employees will receive back pay, many wonder if they can file for unemployment benefits.

Furloughed federal employees can file for unemployment benefits during a government shutdown. The Office of Personnel Management has updated information on how these workers can file for unemployment insurance during a partial shutdown.

Eligibility varies by state. Typically, the state where an employees duty station is located in the state that will determine a workers unemployment eligibility in the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees Program. Eligible employees can file for benefits on or after the first day of their furlough. Some states may require employees to wait a week after filing a claim before their receive payment. Most states, though, will issue benefits within 14-21 days after an employee filed a claim, according to OPM.

Most states pay a maximum of 26 weeks of regular benefits, per OPM, but benefits vary based on location. For example, those who work in the District of Columbia will be paid for 26 weeks with benefits ranging from $50-$425 per week. In Virginia, benefits will be paid for 12-26 weeks and will range from $60-$378 a week. And in California, home to the highest number of federal employees, benefits will be paid for 14-26 weeks and payments will range from $40-$450 per week.

Federal agencies get billed on a quarterly basis for unemployment compensation benefits paid out to their employees. The state insurance agencies notify federal agencies when an employee has filed an unemployment claim. Agencies have up to 12 days to respond.

When the shutdown ends, most states won’t allow unemployment beneficiaries to cancel their claim if their claim was upheld and benefits were issued. Federal employees are required to repay unemployment benefits they received whenever they get back pay for the time spent during the lapse in appropriations.

“The state [unemployment insurance] agency determines whether or not an overpayment exists and, generally, the recovery of the overpayment is a matter for state action under its law,” OPM guidance reads. “However, some state UI laws require the employee to recover such overpayment.”

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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.

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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.

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Choosing the Best Plan

season

With the deadline of this Federal Employee Health Benefits Open Season fast approaching, now is the time to make any changes to your plan(s). Ending on Monday, December 10, Open Season is the time to sign up for or make changes to your government health care plan.

But how do you know what the best option is?

There is a lot to consider: premiums, out-of-pocket costs, physician networks, and catastrophic limits. You should weigh these carefully and by doing so, you should be able to make an informed decision that could potentially save you hundreds or thousands of dollars.

There are 280 plans available, so choosing one can be an overwhelming task. There is help though—Consumers’ Checkbook has its annual Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees available. The guide provides ratings on all plans available, both locally and nationally. It provides overall ratings and ratings broken down by different factors, such as insurance value, out-of-pocket cost limits, premiums, and more. It also rates the various standalone plans available through the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Program.

These ratings should only serve as a starting point, not the be all, end all. Federal employees still need to carefully examine their needs and the plan details.

“The data we have presented should help you to quickly and easily narrow your choice to 2 or 3 of the plans out of the dozens you are offered,” the group wrote. “At this point, compare the brochures of these carefully. Underline key points, or parts of the plans that confuse you, and compare these points among the plans.”

You can also visit www.GuidetoHealthPlans.org for more information.

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2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey

survey

The Office of Personnel management released its results of the government-wide 2018 FEVS. The survey provides a look at federal employee’s overall satisfaction with their jobs, pay, and agency management. Below are some of the highlights of the survey.

Pay

Overall, federal employees seem more satisfied with their pay when compared to previous years. One question asked, “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your pay?” The response rate was generally positive at 63%. Last year it was 61% positive and in 2014, it was only 56% positive.

On the flip side, responses to the statement, “Pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs,” were some of the lowest positive responses regarding pay raises at only 26%.

Highest and Lowest Ratings

Some of the highest ratings in the survey were to questions/statements regarding overall job satisfaction:

  • “When needed, I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” (96% positive rating)
  • “I am constantly looking for ways to do my job better.” (91% positive rating)
  • “The work I do is important.” (90% positive)

Lower ratings were given around areas relating to management issues such as dealing with poor performers and merit-based promotions.

  • “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” (37% positive)
  • “In my work unit, steps are taken to deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve.” (32% positive)

Survey Highlights

The overall global satisfaction from the survey was 64%, the same as in 2017. The percentage score is an average of the job, pay, and organizational satisfaction ratings, as well as whether employees recommend their organization.

Only 41% of respondents believe the results of the FEVS will be used to make their agency a better place to work.

“Our employees continue to feel positive overall about their work experience and feel invested in doing a good job; 90% of our workforce believes the work they do is important. Unfortunately, our people also continue to feel that the Federal Government fails to fully align with Merit System Principles when measuring performance against rewards; only 26% of our people believe pay raises depend on positive performance. Although the 5-year trend for FEVS responses is moving in a positive direction, we cannot stop here and must continue to engage in dialogue with our workforce on how to enhance employee engagement. We have critical work to do in order to build a modern workforce designed to meet the needs of Americans in the 21st century,” acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert said in a statement.

Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service President and CEO said, “While there has been progress in employee engagement during the past few years, the government still lags well behind the private sector. All agencies, from the top performers to those doing poorly, need to focus on improving the management of our government’s most important asset—its employees. Thank you to OPM and the entire FEVS team for the vital work that goes into making the annual undertaking possible.”

Survey Response Rate

The overall response rate for the 2018 FEVS dropped considerably compared to past years. This was the lowest government-wide response rate in the last 5 years, at 40.6%.

Small (100-999 employees) and very small (<100 employees) agencies had the highest response rates among federal agencies. A total of 598,003 federal employees responded this year.

The Veteran’s Affairs Department didn’t participate in this years’ FEVS and instead conducted its own individual employee satisfaction survey, which likely led to the overall low response rate.

To view the complete summary of results, click here.

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Federal Retirement 101–Part 2

steps

As part 1 of this post showed us, it’s important to strategically pick your retirement date to maximize your annuity, especially if you’re a CSRS employee. Once you’ve done that, the real work begins, as they say. The following are steps you should take when you’re ready to retire.

Check Your Service History

You can do this at any point in federal career but be sure to check it before your file your CSRS/FERS retirement application. This is especially true if you’ve worked for other federal agencies or have served on active duty in the military. It’s important your agency has maintained a complete record of your service. Request a retirement estimate from your agency and ensure it includes a summary of your federal service. If it doesn’t, review your electronic Official Personnel Folder to verify it included the beginning and ending dates of every period of your credible federal service.

Be Sure to Have Copies of Important Forms

Just in case something should turn up missing (personnel action forms), you’ll have copies you could produce if needed.

Consider Service Credit Deposits

You may have the option to pay a service credit deposit to either receive credit for service or to avoid a permanent reduction in your retirement benefit. There are 3 types of service credit deposits:

  • Deposit to CSRS or FERS for civilian service that wasn’t covered by retirement deductions, called non-deduction service.
  • Redeposits or refunded CSRS contributions.
  • Deposits for post-1956 military service.

Ask Questions

If you don’t understand something, ask questions. If something looks off to you, try to understand. It’s better to ask questions now than possibly uncover a delay-causing problem later.

Keep Copies of Divorce Documents

If you have a former spouse who was awarded part of your retirement or survivor benefits, keep a copy of your divorce decree or court order.

Ensure You Can Retain Health and Life Insurance Coverage

FEHB and FEGLI are both able to be carried into retirement. Review the rules to maintain these a federal retiree. There is a 5-year requirement that must be met in order to keep these benefits.

Submit Your Application at Least 30 Days Before Your Planned Retirement Date

It’s common in many agencies to give 90 days’ notice of retirement. This allows the agency time to begin to put your retirement package together before you leave.

Attend a Pre-Retirement Seminar

Many federal employees lack knowledge about basic retirement considerations. A seminar is a great way to gain more knowledge and understanding.

If you have any questions about federal disability retirement and what your options are, please call us at 877-226-2723 or fill out this INQUIRY form.

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Federal Retirement 101–Part 1

days

Do you know which days are considered “the best days to retire”? Do you know what steps you need to take to begin the retirement process? This 2-part post will first look at which days are considered to be the “best days to retire” and why and then what you need to do first once you’ve determined when you’re going to retire.

It can be a confusing time so hopefully, this will shed some light on answers to these questions.

The “Best” Days to Retire

Is there a “best day to retire”? Typically, the concept of a “best day” is usually related to finances and maximizing your potential income. A “best day” is generally a personal preference too.

You can retire on any date you choose as long as you meet the age and length of service requirements. Once you meet these requirements, you can retire on any day of the month (1st, last, or any day in between), on a holiday, on a weekend, on an Alternative Work Schedule (AWS) day off, any time in a pay period, etc. You also don’t have to physically be in the office on your last day. Your “retirement date”, or the “effective date” for your retirement is your last day as an employee.

Here are the best days, financially, to retire in 2019 (going from BEST to BETTER, top to bottom):

FERS CSRS
Dec. 31, 2019 Jan. 3, 2020
Jan. 2, 2020
Jan. 1, 2020
Dec. 31, 2019
Last day of any month Last day of any month or 1st 3 days of a month

 

CSRS—Retiring on the first 3 days of the month is not advantageous. For instance, if you retire on a Saturday or Sunday and you’re not scheduled o work those days, then you’re not earning additional pay and are delaying the start of your annuity.

That was just the short version of the “best days to retire”. The long version is a bit more complicated.

Retire at the End of the Month or within the First 3 Days of the Month for CSRS

The end of the month is a good time to retire because of a provision in the FERS and CSRS systems—your annuity begins to accrue at the beginning of the month after you retire. If you retire effective May 31, your annuity begins June 1. There is no gap between when you are earning a salary and when you are earning an annuity.

If you retire mid-month, like May 10, you won’t receive any compensation at all (no salary, no annuity) from May 11-31.

Although, CSRS retirees have an exception to the rule. If they retire on the last day of the month or within the first 3 days of a month, their annuity begins the day after retirement; the very next day. Those extra 3 days may allow you to earn a little more full pay, it may add enough days of service to acquire an additional month of service credit (for a higher annuity), or it may complete a pay period (for more annual leave or sick leave) and your annuity will still commence the day after you retire.

Retire at the End of the Year or within the First 3 Days of January for CSRS

There are several reasons why the end of the year is better than just the end of the month:

  • Generally, you can achieve the highest possible High-3 average salary by working as long as possible at your final salary rate.
  • You can accumulate the most hours of annual leave toward your annual leave lump sum payment. If you roll the standard cap of 240 hours into the 2019 leave year and save all your annual leave during 2019, you would retire at the end of the year with 440 hours of annual leave that you will get paid for.
  • The hourly rate of pay used to calculate part of all of your lump sum payment may be higher if you retire at the end of the year with more than just a few hours of annual leave.
  • The taxes on your lump sum annual leave payment will fall into the 2020 tax year when your taxable income will generally be lower. If that large lump sum payment was received during the same year you received a higher salary, the total income for that year could change your tax bracket causing higher taxes. Therefore, receiving a lump sum payment in a year when you’re no longer working would result in fewer tax implications.

A word of caution though—be careful if you have a lot of annual leave. If you have more than the rollover cap (240 hours for most) and you stay past the end of the leave year (most likely January 4 in 2020), you’ll forfeit any leave over your cap.

So, once you’ve determined when you’re going to retire, the 2nd part of this post will look at what steps you should take to retire.

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