Tag Archives: OPM

Concerns Growing Regarding Pay and Leave

protect

We are nearing one month of this partial government shutdown and many federal employees are wondering about leave, pay, or what happens if they can’t pay their bills, i.e. mortgage. Here are a few reminders, and new bills, to help clarify.

Leave

When there is a lapse in appropriations, all paid leave or other paid time off is canceled. So, what happens to your “use-or-lose” annual leave annual leave that couldn’t be used because of the shutdown?

The Office of Personnel Management has issued guidance on this, stating “that annual leave in excess of an employees’ annual leave ceiling ‘shall be restored’ (i.e. no agency discretion) if it is lost (forfeited) because of…exigencies of the public business’ when the leave was ‘scheduled in advance.’” This means an employee would have had to have scheduled the leave “before the start of the 3rd bi-weekly pay period prior to the end of the leave year.”

Basically, if an employee had leave scheduled in advance, their agency is required to restore the annual leave that was forfeited because of a lapse in appropriations. The leave must have been scheduled in writing no later than November 24, 2018.

Pay

The Senate passed legislation that would guarantee all federal employees will be fully compensated once the ongoing partial government shutdown ends.

The Government Employee Fair Treatment Act (S. 24) was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD). It passed by voice vote in the Senate. The bill guarantees furloughed federal employees will be paid retroactively and stipulates all employees be paid as soon as possible after the shutdown ends.

Foreclosures/Repossessions

The Federal Employee Civil Relief Act (S. 72) was introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). It is designed to protect federal employees from creditors/landlords during the shutdown in the event they are unable to pay their bills. It is modeled after the Servicemembers Relief Act and would prohibit landlords/creditors from acting against federal workers or contractors who are unable to pay rent or repay loans due to the shutdown. The bill would also give federal employees more power to sue those who violate the protection.

The legislation is specifically designed to shield federal employees from the following:

  • Eviction or foreclosure
  • Car/property repossession
  • Falling behind on student loan payments
  • Bills
  • Losing insurance because of missed premiums

The protections would last during and for 30 days following a shutdown.

“Right now, thousands of federal employees and their families are struggling to pay rent and make ends meet. It’s obviously unacceptable. Our bill will protect federal employees and make sure they aren’t harmed because of a political stunt,” Schatz said.

Currently, the bill has 11 co-sponsors.

Tagged , , , ,

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.”

Tagged , , , ,

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 , , , , , ,

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 , , , ,

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 , , , , ,

Update on OPM Retirement Claims Backlog

backlog

The Office of Personnel Management Inspector General released a report that shows OPM has work to do in meeting its goals for keeping down its backlog of retirement applications. The agency has said it has a goal of improving “retirement services by reducing the average time to answer calls to 5 minutes or less and achieve an average case processing time of 60 days or less.”

Here is what the IG had to say of OPM’s efforts:

“OPM appears to remain focused on its internal process improvements and external outreach towards other Federal agencies to meet their goal. However, while Retirement Services appears to have met its average case processing goal for FY2018, with an average processing time of 59 days, its claims backlog as of September 2018 was 17,628, more than 4.5% higher than at the same time a year ago. In addressing the average call answering time, Retirement Services stated that an average time to answer calls in FY2017 was 9.7 minutes, but it increased to 12 minutes in FY2018, more than double the strategic plan goal of 5 minutes or less. Again, no data was provided to Retirement Services’ average time to answer calls.

In order to alleviate the excessive busy signals and long wait times, Retirement Services provided more automated services via Services-On-Line, a redesign which went live on June 10, 2018, featuring a new technology stack with responsive design that is compatible with any hand-held design, and provides a more customer-friendly experience and efficient processing of transactions.

In continuing its efforts, Retirement Services plans to:

  • Continue to integrate improvements for correspondence and claims processing;
  • Enhance reporting tools to monitor and address Retirement Services workloads;
  • Utilize overtime to assist with timely processing;
  • Work with the OCIO to investigate technological capabilities to help improve processing time and reduce wait times;
  • Continue to provide Federal retirement policy technical assistance to all OPM offices and Congress;
  • Perform on-going audits of agency submissions;
  • Provide monthly feedback to agencies and payroll offices and alert them of trends and improvement opportunities; and
  • Identify training needs for agencies, develop job aids and online training modules, and conduct workshops on the retirement application process.

OPM must continue to work to obtain the necessary resources to ensure that the needs of its customers and stakeholders are met.”

This has been an ongoing battle for OPM, so we’ll see if the new year brings changes.

Tagged , , , ,

Dismissal and Closure Procedures

dismissal

As the weather gets colder and the chance for inclement weather rises, the Office of Personnel Management updated its policies and procedures regarding the dismissal of federal employees for emergency situations. OPM defines this as, “The inability to safely travel to an approved work location may result in ‘closure’ of a federal office (i.e., closed to the public and non-emergency employees) for the full day or authorization of a delayed arrival.”

Weather and Safety Leave

This type of leave was granted in the Administrative Leave Act of 2016 and was previously granted as an administrative leave of an excused absence. The final regulations on this were issued in April 208.

Telework

This is stressed under the new weather and safety leave type. OPM encourages agencies to use telework as much as possible during these situations to ensure continuity across government operations. OPM also encourages agencies to review their telework agreements to ensure they are in place should an unexpected situation arise.

The agency also said other agencies won’t be able to provide weather and safety leave to a telework participant who is not prevented from working safely at an approved telework site during severe weather or emergency situations. Typically, telework participants won’t receive weather and safety leave, since they aren’t prevented from performing work at an approved location due to weather or other safety-related emergencies.

As with most regulations, there are some exceptions, such as unexpected weather or unsafe telework sites. The new policy has changed to include these and now states:

“Previously, OPM guidance stated that only those employees with telework agreements containing express language requiring them to work during a closure situation could be denied administrative leave. Under OPM’s weather and safety leave regulations, all telework program participants will be ineligible for weather and safety leave when a closure is announced except in rare circumstances when one of the exceptions under 5 CFR 630.1605(a)(2) applies. Employees participating in a telework program must telework, take other leave (paid or unpaid) or paid time off (as approved by the agency), or a combination of both unless an exception applies.”

The revised guidance also covers topics like how weather and safety leave apply to emergency and non-emergency employees.

Tagged , , , ,

New FSA Contribution Limits

limits

The Internal Revenue Service raised the annual contribution limit for Flexible Spending Accounts for 2019 to $2,700, $50 over the 2018 limit. This is the annual employee pre-tax maximum contribution allowed under the Health Care Flexible Spending Account and Limited Expense Health Flexible Spending Account available to federal employees.

HCFSA

This pre-tax benefit account is used to pay for eligible medical, dental, and vision care expenses not covered by your health care plan. With this account, you use pre-tax dollars to pay for qualified health care expenses.

The money you contribute to an HCFSA isn’t subject to payroll taxes, so you end up paying less in taxes and have more take-home money. You decide how much to contribute to your HCFSA based on what you plan to spend in the upcoming year on out of pocket health care expenses. Since the money in your HCFSA isn’t subject to payroll taxes, you typically save an average of 30% on your eligible health care expenses.

Note: You cannot use an HCFSA to pay for health or life insurance, long-term care insurance or any other insurance premiums, or cost of temporary continuation of coverage.

LEX HCFSA

This is an option if you’re enrolled in a Federal Employee Health Benefits high deductible health plan (HDHP) and have an HSA. This option is also available is your spouse is enrolled in a non-FEHB HDHP and an HSA.

IRS rules do not allow you to contribute to an HSA is you are covered by any non-qualifying health plan, such as a general purpose HCFSA.

You and your spouse remain eligible to participate in both a LEXHCFSA and an FSA by limiting FSA reimbursements to qualifying dental and vision care expenses. Participating in both plans allows you to maximize your savings and tax benefits. The money you contribute to a LEX HCFSA isn’t subject to payroll taxes, so you take home more.

Open Season is currently underway until December 10. More information can be found at fsafeds.com.

Tagged , , , ,

Federal Salary Council Recommendations

recommendationsThe Trump administration will soon get a series of recommendations from the Federal Salary Council that outlines how the government might begin to change the way it makes key decisions about employee pay. The council is advancing 5 options, after several months of debate, to the president’s pay agent, comprised of the Labor Secretary and Directors of the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget. These options are being considered when comparing federal pay to the private sector.

Recommendations:

  1. Continue to use the current methodology
  2. Adopt a salary method that “reduces the extent of statistical modeling”
  3. Use other human capital data on attrition and acceptance rates, such as make future salary-based decisions
  4. Develop a method that compares both federal employee pay and benefits to those of the private sector
  5. Find a way to conduct a comprehensive, periodic review of total compensation for federal civilian, white-collar employees.

The first 3 options don’t require a law change but the latter 2 would.

Union Reactions

Federal employee unions who sit on the council include the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Treasury Employees Union, and the National Federation of Federal Employees. They do not agree with the alternatives and voiced their concerns.

The council “is not meant to be a platform for the president’s own views as expressed by his appointee,” AFGE policy director Jacque Simon said. “This year’s workgroup report, however, is a clear attempt to politicize what has been for the last 26 years a technical, apolitical report that has followed the law’s instructions regarding measurement of pay disparities and boundaries of pay localities.”

The unions are concerned the council is using itself as a vehicle to advance the administration’s preference for pay-for-performance over across-the-board pay increases.

The also adamantly defend the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s model to measure discrepancies in pay between the public and private sectors.

“We do not advocate for throwing anything out,” Jill Nelson, the council’s vice chair said. “We are looking more at having more factors on the table. How they’re considered, that will all work its way out, but they are still elements. They should at least be there for consideration.”

New Pay Localities Coming Soon

The council did agree on important changes to the locality program. OPM said it intends to finalize Birmingham/Hoover/Talladega, AL; Burlington/South Burlington, VT; San Antonio/New Braunfels/Pearsall, TX; VA Beach/Norfolk, VA as new locality pay areas in time for the first paycheck of 2019.

The president has the final say and must physically set pay rates for these areas.

The agency has also approved Des Moines, IA as a separate locality pay area for 2020. It also recommended Imperial Co, CA as an “area of application” to the Los Angeles area.

The pay agent must still approve these recommendations and OPM must propose and finalize changes with new regulations; then the president must approve them.

To read more about this, click here.

Tagged , , , ,