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Child-care subsidy is spotty for government employees

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2010; 8:12 PM

Uncle Sam strives to be a model employer, as least for now.

That goal could take a hit with plans for pay freezes and workforce reductions, but he remains a cut above many private employers, particularly when it comes to benefits.

One benefit he provides, at least on paper and to some workers, is child-care subsidies. It's certainly a good investment to support day care for the children of low- and moderate-income federal workers.

"I think we get very good value for the money," said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management. "It is one way we can help working families, especially low- income working families, on the job."

Each agency sets parameters for its own program. OPM, for example, pays 70 percent of the child-care costs for employees with family incomes less than $40,000; 40 percent for those with family incomes up to $55,000 and 25 percent for employees in families making up to $60,000, the maximum.

"In these times, when federal employees are under attack for being overpaid, it is sobering to realize the large number of employees who, but for subsidized child care, would not be able to be regularly employed," said William Bransford, a member of the board of directors of the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund. It administers some of the programs.

Day care not only helps parents with their children, it also strengthens their productivity, Berry said, by boosting performance and morale and allowing them to stay fully engaged on the job.

Yet some agencies - the Social Security Administration is one - don't take advantage of the subsidy program. On paper, the Veterans Affairs Department does participate, but in reality, its program has been in shambles.

Two years ago, the subsidy for Bobbie Stewart's son abruptly stopped. The 34-year-old part-time grad school student and clerk at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond said her check is $800 every other week, and her child-care payments can run as high as $600 a month.

You don't need to be a math genius to see how the subsidy would come in handy. The money covered about 45 percent of the child-care bill for her 5-year-old son, Bryce, and was sent directly to the child-care provider. Without the subsidy, she's had to pay out of her pocket. "It's a strain," she said.

But she struggled to pay for one reason: "He's my son. I have to take care of him."

At one point, she needed a $400 loan from FEEA, which formerly administered the VA program. "I couldn't do it all, and the day-care facility was wanting money," she explained.

The problems apparently began after FEEA's administration of the program ended in January 2008, and VA moved it to another contractor, then took it in-house.

This has been a headache for Stewart and other parents in the VA program, all of whom have faced delays.

The VA explanation seems to fault the other guy, whomever that might be.

"The payments were delayed when VA suspended the program after experiencing difficulties with contractors administering the program," said Katie Roberts, a VA spokeswoman. "Employees were required to reapply for the program to determine their eligibility and, in many cases, the required documentation was not provided in the initial application package. Additional delays resulted when required documentation was not provided with subsidy benefit payment requests, and child-care providers did not submit the information required for direct deposit of subsidy benefit payments."

She said the VA child-care subsidy program office completed processing all qualifying retroactive subsidy benefit payments as of Nov. 26. It must be a long pipeline, because Stewart said her subsidy still hasn't been paid.

"Qualifying retroactive subsidy benefit payment requests were processed from December 2009 through November 2010," Roberts added. "These payments will be received by child-care providers on behalf of participants through December 2010."

While the VA program has been in a confused state, not all agencies participate in it. The OPM Web site lists 34 agencies that do. In some cases, one subcomponent of a larger department may have a child-care subsidy program while a sister agency does not. That's the case in the Homeland Security Department.

"They do not exist in all our components, mostly because these programs are an unfunded option for agencies, making it financially challenging to establish and maintain," a department statement said.

Caution: the OPM list is not the total picture. Some agencies not listed may provide other forms of subsidized child care. The Defense Department, for example, "has a very robust child-care program serving approximately 200,000 children on a daily basis," said Cynthia O. Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "These diverse programs provide care for infants through pre-school and on through before- and after-school programs."

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