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'Cool' Jobs and Same-Sex Benefits

By Ed O'Keefe
Friday, October 16, 2009

Remember when President Obama said he wanted to make working for the federal government "cool again"? The government's chief human resources officer told lawmakers Thursday that they need to approve a bill that extends full benefits to the domestic partners of gay and lesbian federal employees to ensure that the government remains competitive with the private sector.

"Young people are looking at this as an indicator that says, do you have this, and if not, this is not a cool place to be," Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"This really has become a litmus test for this generation. I know because I've been out talking to college students at our recruitment and job fairs," Berry said, noting that the Obama administration "wholeheartedly" endorses the bill reintroduced earlier this year by Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

More than 34,000 federal employees live in committed same-sex partnerships, and more than 30,000 of them have partners who are not federal employees, according to estimates in a 2007 University of California at Los Angeles study. If approved, the bill would cost taxpayers $56 million next year, Berry said.

The price tag equals about 0.2 percent of the entire cost of the government's federal employee health insurance, Berry said. His agency's estimate includes $19 million in savings from retirees who would elect to receive benefits for their domestic partners and thus get smaller annuity payments.

"That is a sum well worth the benefit that will accrue in recruiting and retaining the best people to serve as federal employees," said Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the committee. Lieberman and other supporters note that most Fortune 500 companies, 22 states and more than 150 state and local governments -- including Maryland and the District -- already extend such benefits.

Berry said the bill's $56 million cost compares with $43 million the federal government spends each year on relocation costs, $85 million offered in recruitment incentives and $155 million spent on retention incentives.

"This is a no-brainer for us in terms of a good deal for the federal taxpayer," he said.

No lawmakers voiced opposition to the bill at Thursday's hearing, but House Republicans have previously said the measure discriminates against unmarried heterosexual partners. Supporters note that heterosexual couples can marry and that OPM recognizes common-law marriages of heterosexual couples.

Lieberman expects his committee to vote on the bill by the end of December so the full Senate can consider it early next year.

MORE CHECKS IN THE MAIL?

Good news this week for former federal employees: Members of the Civil Service Retirement System would be among the roughly 57 million seniors expected to get $250 emergency payments next year if Congress approves a plan backed by Obama.

The proposal calls for the government to issue the one-time payments to seniors receiving Social Security or veterans benefits, and the roughly 300,000 federal retirees that did not pay into the Social Security system as members of CSRS.

"This payment would come as a welcome relief to federal retirees and survivors at a time when most will shoulder a 12 to 15 percent health insurance premium increase in a year they will receive no cost of living adjustment," Margaret L. Baptiste, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, said in a statement. "We commend the president for supporting a payment to older Americans that will help them make ends meet and for including government retirees who are not eligible to receive Social Security."

Spend (or save) that money wisely! (If the government gives it out.)

Joe Davidson is away. He will resume writing this column when he returns. Send your questions and comments to federaldiary@washpost.comand read Ed O'Keefe's blog, the Federal Eye, at http://washingtonpost.com/federaleye.

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