By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Congress is returning to work today with a full plate of measures important to federal workers, including several that would expand the protections and benefits offered to current and former government employees.
The House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill that would grant federal employees four weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Another House measure giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products includes provisions that would change the benefits structure for federal workers.
The Senate will consider a bill that would expand federal workers' telework benefits; it was cleared by a committee before the Memorial Day recess. And both chambers will soon work on a bipartisan effort to extend health and retirement benefits to the partners of gay federal employees.
"I think the fact that the president's been elected and there's a Democratic Congress makes things a little easier to get done," said Beth Moten, legislative director of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Some senior Republican staffers say the flurry of legislative activity is more a signal of growing discontent on Capitol Hill with a government hiring-and-pay system that lags far behind the private sector than the manifestation of a friendlier political climate for federal employees.
Federal workers groups have generally supported the pending bills, with the exception of a Senate proposal that would allow agencies to rehire retired government employees. The bipartisan bill would let agencies hire annuitants on a temporary basis for the next five years. It would impose strict work-hour limitations but allow agencies to waive requirements that returning workers take pay cuts equal to their annuity. Several agencies wanted to strike that requirement to woo back highly skilled retirees.
The hiring authority would also help alleviate a workforce stretched thin by new obligations tied to the implementation and oversight of the economic stimulus package, said the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Opponents say that agencies should address the retirement wave before workers depart and that the bill is contrary to the private sector's hiring practices.
"Companies don't give you your gold watch and annuity on Monday and on Tuesday bring you back and pay you your full salary," said Maureen Gilman, legislative director of the National Treasury Employees Union, which generally supports rehiring former workers, as long as they do not jeopardize the career advancement of current employees.
Annuitants will not do that, said Dan Adcock, legislative director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.
"You're not displacing a current employee if people are coming in on a part-time basis for a limited duration," he said. "There's a lot of current federal employees who I think would want this."
Lawmakers and workers groups generally agree that proposals for improved teleworking opportunities and benefits for gay partners will win approval. A joint congressional committee is tentatively scheduled to meet next month to consider bipartisan legislation that would grant same-sex partners of federal workers relocation assistance and access to federal employee health benefits.
"I think there will be some social conservatives who are delighted to have a fight about this," Mote said. "But the times are leaving these people behind, and we're working really hard to get it done this year."
Federal workers unions have long sought expanded teleworking rights, arguing that some employees can easily perform their jobs from home while cutting long commutes and agency costs. With the Senate version approved in committee, efforts continue on the House side.
Meanwhile, the Office of Personnel Management is working on a parallel track to develop new teleworking guidelines for agencies, but members of Congress want rules written into law.
"We want to have it on the books regardless of what administration is in place," said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), lead House sponsor of telework legislation. "I commute every day from Baltimore to Washington, so I'm extremely conscious of what it means to have to commute back and forth," he said. "We haven't figured out a way for members of Congress to vote virtually, but I'm very in tune to the benefits that can come from all other kinds of opportunities."