Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, December 5, 2007; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr writes the Federal Diary column, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts


Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today. Congress and the White House continue to wrangle over a budget deal for most fiscal 2008 spending. I'd be interested in hearing your views on life under a CR and whether it has led to plans to cancel performance bonuses, reduce travel, slow down procurements, etc. Meanwhile, it appears employees of the Army are at risk of a furlough, although it is hard to read the politics of the moment. With those thoughts, let's go to the questions.


Alexandria, Va.: Your column today about a potential government shutdown barely touches upon a critical fact -- the federal workers eventually receive retrospective pay. Thousands of federal contractor employees will lose pay if the government shuts down, but unlike their government colleagues, contractors will not be paid retroactively because the government will not reimburse the contractor companies for work not performed.

I hope The Post will address this issue, especially the impact on and nominally low-paid employees of minority-owned businesses (8(a) contractors) in the services industries, such as food workers, libraries, mail room, facilities. I speak from experience -- during the '95-'96 shutdown mentioned this morning, I was employed by a small contractor with fewer than 50 employees, all nominally and low-paid service workers. The employer already was operating at risk, and used the shutdown to violate the law -- eliminating contractually specified benefits, withholding payroll for months and raiding our 401(k) withholdings. This continued for months following the shutdown, during which time many low-paid employees left and never were reimbursed for lost wages or 401 (k) withholdings. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Pentagon Says 200,000 Workers Could Receive Pink Slips for Christmas (Post, Dec. 5)

Stephen Barr: Yes, most federal employees expect Congress to "make them whole" if they are temporarily laid off. Contract employees may not have such a guarantee from their companies.

All in all, it sounds like you had a terrible experience during the 1995-1996 shutdown. Hopefully, Congress and the White House won't go down that road again.


Rockville, Md.: My wife works for the Department of Defense and is about to go into the "payband" system. While she has received top marks, she is concerned that the new plan is more strict and that one bad grade in all the grades will be grounds to give her severe penalties or fire her. Her concern is serious enough to cause her to give serious consideration to an early retirement. What do others say about this question? She really works hard and gets good supervision -- it is the new system and the way it has been explained that gives her concern. I tell her that members of Congress are fighting it.

Stephen Barr: Based on my talks with Defense officials, I do not think that "good" employees will be penalized by the new pay bands of the National Security Personnel System. I write this with complete awareness that there are bad managers in every large organization and some people will not be treated fairly.

Please urge her to give the new system a try. Managers are still working out the kinks, so to speak, and it should improve with a little time. Also, we need experienced people now.

Anyone else out there with a comment on this?


Not Washington: What are the odds that Monday, Dec. 24, will be made a holiday for Federal Employees? When would we find out? I understand that in past years when Christmas is on a Tuesday, Monday has been given off as well.

Stephen Barr: I would be surprised if the president balks at declaring Dec. 24 a holiday, in part because he has done so in the past.

In most years, the president issues an executive order, usually around Dec. 10. So perhaps we will see one coming out of the White House in the next few days.

Still, we do have troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think that is a consideration at the White House. The troops essentially don't have days off.


Beachwood, Ohio (really the state of confusion): Two quick questions: Where can we find who would be impacted by the 200,000 layoffs? And when will the special pay tables be released?Happy holidays.

Stephen Barr: The Army and Marine Corps apparently will bear the brunt of the furloughs, if they happen. All the Pentagon has said is that notices will go out to affected employees in "mid-December." I'm told that teams are at work drawing up lists of bases to partially close -- they are calling it a "warm freeze," apparently.

With the rise in locality payments, there is less demand for special pay rates these days. Agencies have to petition the Office of Personnel Management for permission to pay special rates. I would guess that those tables will come out near the end of the year.


Washington: There don't seem to be any buyouts this year. Is that true in all agencies?

Stephen Barr: I'm pretty sure the Labor Department offered early retirement packages this year, but it's my sense that cash buyouts are a relic of the past. Most agencies project huge retirement waves in the next few years, so there is no need to sweeten the pot to encourage departures.


Rockville, Md.: When my library at the FDA went through a contract-or-retain exercise, only seven of us out of 43 were still in the library at the end of the process. I think it was A-76. But I was amused by the fact that they said only jobs that were commercial would be contracted out. How many commercial libraries do we see on the street? "I think I will get some bread at Giant and a book at the library shop."

Stephen Barr: In theory, the government is not supposed to be in competition with the private sector and should obtain services from the private sector if they are commercially available. I think this doctrine goes back to the Eisenhower administration.

Like you, I don't think of libraries as commercial entities, but in the Wiki Age, who knows?


Washington: Can you tell me what the benefit are in becoming a career employee with the federal government? I have been working for the federal government for a little more than two years and am a career conditional employee, but I really want to take another job in the private sector. However, I keep hearing that I should try to make my three years and become a career employee. Is there really a positive to doing this?

Stephen Barr: If you serve three years in the government, it is easier to return later, because you have been granted career status. So you probably do want to weigh the pros and cons of leaving before your 3-year anniversary. Experts claim that more and more of us will rotate in and out of government, in and out of jobs, etc., as technology and workplaces change. So I would say follow your soul, but only if you can really rule out a return to public service some day.


Rockville, Md.:"In most years, the president issues an executive order, usually around the 10th of the month. So perhaps we will see one coming out of the White House in the next few days." In 2001, Bush issued an executive order on Dec. 5 making Dec. 24 a holiday. In 2003, Bush issued an executive order on Dec. 9 making Dec. 26 (Friday) a holiday. See this site.

Stephen Barr: Thanks! Good to have a historian in the room.


Re: Paybands: I've seen both sides of paybands. One time the band was used to reward stronger performers; another time, the band was used to reward those whose goal was to just get along. So it really depends on the organization and direct supervisory chain.

Stephen Barr: Good point.

In theory, pay bands should work to the advantage of employees who are eager for new job responsibilities or a change of pace. Pay bands cut down on HR paperwork and, at Defense, will boost pay by 5 percent every time you get reassigned.

But real promotions may be a bit more difficult, since there are fewer bands than General Schedule grades. There's also the risk that pay raises will not be any more meaningful than under the GS if more money is not made available to reward top performers.

I sometimes wonder if DoD is interested in the NSPS because it will make it easier to deal with the deadwood in the workplace. Employees with unacceptable performance will not get any raise, and, over time, will get the message to pull up anchor and sail away, I think.


Lexington Park, Md.: If you work hard and provide a valuable service to your organization, you will not be screwed over by the paybanding system. If not, perhaps you do have something to worry about. I'm tired of hearing about people complain that their managers won't know how to deal with the new pay system. Managers in industry manage to make it work; why would managers in the government be incapable?

Stephen Barr: Good question.

Not all managers in industry are successful at running performance-based pay systems, though. It's also important to note that most companies handle compensation issues in secrecy, and it is not uncommon for two employees doing the same job to be paid at different rates. So far, the government has operated with a strong sense of internal equity, but that may change with pay bands.


Somewhere in Virginia: I am under NSPS and due for first rating as soon as my crooked, corrupt, lazy, gutter-dwelling, attorney director gets off his butt and gets his pay-pool stuff done so the other attorneys over at OSD can screw us nonattorneys over again. We know we won't keep pace with whatever raise the other feds get and know the attorneys and administrative judges will get more than their fair share. We get the scraps. And we are working mandatory overtime and are under leave restrictions while they are going to the movies during the workday. Problem is they need to get a move on, because all this needs to be effective the first new pay period in the New Year. Betting is it won't happen, with grievances and lawsuits soon to be filed.

Stephen Barr: Bad managers, and some good managers, are going to be in for a shock under the NSPS, I think. Ratings and pay decisions will be reviewed by senior officials; Army auditors are doing a study of how the process works.

With time, it will be far easier for the Pentagon to compare performance ratings across the department, and make some guesses about productivity. Bad managers will likely have to answer for why they have problems in their offices.


Re: Staying in the government for three years: If the poster is close to three years he should stay because he would get to keep whatever the government has put into his TSP once he's hit the three-year mark (i.e. the automatic 1 percent and any match he has been getting). If you leave before three years, you forfeit it.

Stephen Barr: Excellent point. Thank you.


Arlington, Va.: Do SES members get the federal pay increase scheduled for January, or any other kind of cost-of-living adjustment?

Stephen Barr: No, the SES does not receive the January general pay increase, and they are not eligible for locality pay, either.

Agencies may adjust pay based on performance and responsibilities. From what I've heard, there are mixed views inside the SES on all this, in part because many executives would like to at least receive a COLA to protect their salaries from erosion by inflation.


Greenbelt, Md.: Buyouts? NASA's Goddard has offered buyouts -- apparently as an incentive to many already toying with the idea of retirement.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the update!


Washington: Mr. Barr -- Has any agency calculated the cost to the government of running the annual Combined Federal Campaign? I'm all for charitable contributions, but in my small office alone it seems a significant amount of time and money are spent by organizers going to meetings and having fundraising events. I can't image the cost governmentwide. I tithe 10 percent to my church and am putting two nieces though college and feel like the atmosphere pressures me to contribute when I can't afford any more. There must be a more efficient and less pressure-filled way to run encourage giving. Thanks!

Stephen Barr: That sounds like a task for a GAO auditor! Most agencies "loan" executives, employees and space to the CFC, which does a wonderful job of efficiently raising money for the poor, the sick and the needy.

But there is an element of competition in all this. Agencies don't want to be seen as laggards, and the various federal regions like to show that federal employees are generous donors.

I understand the pressures you face -- paychecks only stretch so far these days.


Stanardsville, Va.: Hi Stephen. Thanks for your recent article on Medicare. I am a retired federal employee and have BlueCross standard option, and have been happy with my coverage. I plan to enroll for Medicare Part A. If I opt not to enroll in and pay for Medicare Part B, then I assume that Medicare is only my primary insurer for things covered under Part A and that my BlueCross is my primary insurer for all other things that BlueCross normally covers. Do I have this correct? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Studying Health-Plan Options Now Can Pay Off Next Year (Post, Nov. 28)

Stephen Barr: Yes, that is correct.


Washington: I am anxious to work in government, but some places are getting 200 applications per job. Short of my knowing someone in an agency who can flag my resume (so that it is not spat out by a computer), how does a highly qualified person from the private sector simply break in? I was told they were looking for good people. Thanks

Stephen Barr: Despite some stepped up hiring at agencies, it is difficult for an outsider to land a job. Here are a couple of thoughts:

Carefully read the job announcement and try to determine if only someone on the inside has the narrow set of skills or knowledge that is required. Many federal jobs are really open to only federal employees looking for a promotion or transfer. Carefully read the announcement to see what skills, knowledge and abilities are required, and then make sure your answers on any questionnaires and in your resume are tailored to those specifics. Try to repeat some of the language from the job announcement, since some computer programs use buzz words to identify potential job candidates.

I firmly believe that networking is the best way to land a federal job -- either through a mentor, a friend, or through a professional association, where you have a chance to meet people informally.

Depending on how you feel, you can pay people to help write up your applications and resumes. Some services seem to have a decent track record in helping people get through the federal door.

Best of luck!


Fed in Maryland: I understand the posters concern about CFC (Combined Federal Campaign). I was roped into being a CFC Worker because I was the new kid in town in my office. I could not believe the amount of time spent by CFC Key Workers for fundraisers, bake sales, raffles, etc. I think they went a little overboard. I tried to pressure co-workers as little as possible, but pressure came from upper management for our agency to meet a monetary CFC goal. Bottom line, employees should not be pressured to give to CFC, and those who want to should do so freely. However, our agency did raise a tremendous amount of money for the CFC through these fundraisers...

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the testimonial.


Silver Spring, Md., Mom/Fed: Hi Stephen: I heard a couple of months ago that we (fed employees) were suppose to get a substantial pay raise -- 8 percent or something like that. Then I heard the other day we would get 3 percent. I don't recall whether this was the cost of living adjustment -- do you have any info on this? Also, how in the world can we afford to pay someone their retirement pay and also a fat salary as a contractor? Is that good business sense? If so ... how?

Stephen Barr: At the moment, the president has ordered up a 3 percent average raise for 2008. If Congress follows through on its pay plan, the raise will be 3.5 percent, on average.

Don't know where you heard an 8 percent hike was in the offering, although someone who qualifies for a within-grade increase and extra performance pay might end up at that mark. But, on the whole, that seems unlikely for many.

Don't know where you work, but some agencies apparently cannot get the work done without contract workers, and most contractors like to hire federal retirees, since they know the ropes and have experience. Hard to know whether it makes good business sense, but few politicians are interested in expanding the permanent civil service. And that's another topic for another day.


Washington: How easy is it to change your occupational series? I have been working as a program analyst for several years while completing a master's degree. I am having difficulty making the certs for jobs that are not program analyst positions, despite my degree and experience that I think would apply to new positions.

Stephen Barr: My sense is that your challenge is showing agencies you meet the qualifications for a different job series. I would see if I could set up an in-person interview, for the purpose of getting information and clarification from HR folks on how to make this transition. Best of luck!


Silver Spring, Md., Mom/Fed: I wouldn't pay someone a dime to help with my resume or application to the federal government. What I would strongly recommend is that you make contact with someone who already works for the federal government and ask them to help forward your resume to HR. Out of the 200 people who might apply, get someone to help you be seen and heard. Connect...

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Silver Spring. That sounds like good advice.

Once again, we've run out of time. Thank you for the questions and comments; we'll be back here at noon next Wednesday. Please join us then!


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company