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For federal employees at war, pay shouldn't be a worry

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, June 17, 2010; B03

When you think of Americans in war zones, don't stop with those wearing combat fatigues and carrying big guns.

Since 2001, more than 44,000 civilians have been deployed to dangerous places, notably Iraq and Afghanistan. But unlike those in uniform, who are linked by a common set of pay and benefits, the civilians work under a variety of standards that can cause confusion.

Having employees labor next to each other in the same hazardous situations, but with different wages and health coverage, can produce added stress at a time when no one needs it. The Obama administration is trying to straighten that out with legislation it sent to Capitol Hill this month.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, wrote to Congress that his agency and the Defense and State departments developed the bill to "provide more uniformity and transparency to the pay and benefits for deployed civilian employees."

He praised the civilians who "are essential to the federal government's ability to meet its mission requirements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of armed conflict," while cautioning against their "disparate treatment."

The legislation would attempt to better coordinate that treatment, Berry added, by codifying the benefits civilians can receive while serving in a "designated zone of armed conflict."

Agency heads currently have temporary authority to allow their employees "allowances, benefits and gratuities similar to those provided by the Department of State for employees in combat zones," according to an administration analysis of the bill. The legislation would make that authority permanent.

Members of the Senior Executive Service and others who don't get overtime would be cleared for it when working in war zones, under the administration's plan. But this won't result in any government millionaires. An employee would not be allowed to make more money, with overtime, than the vice president, whose salary is $230,700.

When employees who don't work for the Pentagon need medical care in war zones, they can't be sure they will be treated in a Defense Department facility. Because the department hasn't clearly defined the "compelling circumstances" that would allow that, the Government Accountability Office said in an April report, "confusion existed within DOD and other agencies regarding civilians' eligibility for care at military treatment facilities following deployment."

Berry said discrepancies in employees' pay grew from the "discretionary nature of various compensation authorities." In addition to State and Defense, the Commerce, Health and Human Services, Treasury, Transportation, and Energy departments have sent staff members to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The decentralized way of doing business can cause trouble for many of those posted in the midst of conflict. The GAO said that about 40 percent of the deployed civilians it surveyed reported problems with compensation, including danger pay.

The potential for difficulty grows as more and more civilians are sent to war zones.

"Under President Obama's strategy for Afghanistan, as the United States works to destroy al-Qaeda, the nation also is working to build the capacity of the Afghan government and bring new opportunities to its people. A sharp increase in federal civilian employees in Afghanistan is supporting this effort," Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs federal workforce subcommittee, said as he opened a hearing on the issue in April. "Secretary of State [Hillary Rodham] Clinton has testified that almost 1,000 civilians would be in Afghanistan by early 2010. A further increase of 20 to 30 percent is expected by the end of this year."

The GAO report to Akaka's panel noted the problems that diverse standards can pose: "When these civilians are deployed and serve side by side, differences in compensation or medical benefits may become more apparent and could adversely impact morale."

Low morale because of bureaucratic differences in pay and benefits is the last thing workers need in such situations. Some dude with a roadside bomb won't take pity on the federal worker whose agency is less generous than the next one. The civilians don't carry guns like the armed forces do, but they face some of the same dangers.

"Civilians serving in combat zones are exposed to stress levels comparable, at times, to those experienced by military personnel," Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, told Akaka's panel.

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