Energy Department Pulls Plug on Bonuses

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, November 16, 2006

The squeeze on spending has started.

The Energy Department this week suspended bonuses and discretionary pay raises for employees until it gets a handle on what kind of budget to expect for fiscal 2007. Other agencies have quietly informed managers to tighten up on spending and embrace frugality for the next few weeks.

The budget squeeze can be traced back about six weeks, to when Congress failed to complete 10 of the 12 appropriations bills by Oct. 1, the start of the 2007 fiscal year. As a result, lawmakers placed many agencies on interim spending, known as a continuing resolution, sometimes at funding levels lower than their fiscal 2006 budgets. As time passes, agencies find it harder to make ends meet, especially when certain offices or programs take budget cuts and funding cannot be reprogrammed.

That seems to be the case at the Energy Department.

Energy put a hold on bonuses Tuesday in hopes of avoiding layoffs or placing employees on unpaid leave as it waits for Congress to finish its fiscal 2007 budget, according to a memo sent to senior officials by Jeff T.H. Pon, the department's personnel chief, and Michael C. Kane, the management chief at the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.

Many Energy employees will be disappointed by the delayed bonuses, which usually show up in late December and early January paychecks. Energy bonuses are given at managers' discretion and vary by office and rank. The typical bonus for rank-and-file workers is $1,000 to $4,000, said Dave Schoeberlein, president of National Treasury Employees Union Chapter 213.

But Energy officials think they've made a prudent decision. The department's administrative budget, which covers the secretary's office and other management-related offices, was cut by $26 million, to $225 million, on the House floor. The president's budget had recommended that the account receive $278 million.

In weighing his options, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman decided that if the administrative offices had to give up bonuses to avoid layoffs, it was only fair to defer bonuses on a department-wide basis, said Craig Stevens, the department's spokesman.

Pon and Kane, in their memo, said the continuing resolution's funding "for certain department offices could, if extended into the future, potentially result in reductions in force or furloughs." Given current circumstances, they wrote, "it would not be prudent to pay performance awards that could, in only a few weeks, place the very jobs of co-workers at risk."

Pon and Kane said departmental leaders "believe it would not be equitable to delay the payment of performance awards for employees in the many affected offices, while employees of other offices received their awards as if the department was operating in a business as usual manner."

Schoeberlein said union lawyers will ask for data verifying the department's claim that budget woes are behind the bonus suspension. "We're going to go in and drain this swamp," he said.

Budget relief for Energy and other parts of the government may be weeks away. With little progress being made in the lame-duck session, Congress plans to extend the interim funding restrictions, due to expire tomorrow, through Dec. 8.

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