Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, April 16, 2008; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, 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

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining this discussion today. We'll dive right into the questions and comments; look forward to getting your feedback today!

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Baltimore: Here's a response to the members of Congress, cited in today's Federal Diary, who expressed concern about new benefits being provided to federal employees during an economic downturn: As an attorney for a federal agency, I could be earning considerably more by working in the private sector. Indeed, private-sector salaries (and benefits) tend to soar during times of economic boom, whereas federal salaries (and benefits) do not. For better or worse, federal salaries and benefits are not affected by the economy to the same extent as they are in the private sector. It does not seem right that, now that we are in an economic downturn, these members of Congress believe that federal salaries and benefits should be directly tied to the state of the economy.

washingtonpost.com: Family-Leave Plan Is Halved (Post, April 16)

Stephen Barr: A good point to make. The debate over providing four paid weeks of parental leave for the birth of a child or an adoption continued this morning in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. A vote on the proposal could come this afternoon.

My sense is that this could help lure young people into the federal service and should be considered on those terms. The question of federal pay comparability with the private sector is a difficult one, and, of course, applies across the board to all government employees. Parental leave is a benefit that would not apply to all.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What is the soonest that a paid parental leave and/or an optional short-term disability benefit program (which could be open not only to new parents but also to employees caring for elderly parents, etc., and might include employee contributions) realistically be might offered to federal employees?

Stephen Barr: Difficult to forecast. Republicans view the paid parental leave bill as extra compensation for federal employees, and Democrats will have to make a case that it does not score as new, direct spending. The administration's proposal for a short-term disability benefit, with employees paying all of the premium, has not gotten any traction on Capitol Hill that I've seen. The House bill proposed paid parental leave calls for a study of the feasibility of offering short-term disability insurance, or combining features of paid leave and disability insurance. So that idea seems at least a year away from any real action, I would guess.

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Clifton, Va.: Sorry, a 22-year civilian employee with Defense paid leave to have or adopt a child should be defeated. Previous feds did without this perk. Start hoarding you leave like my wife, sisters, sisters-in-law and coworkers did. And if you don't like it, don't accept employment with the government -- or leave.

Stephen Barr: It has been pointed out in congressional testimony that not every employee is able to save sufficient sick leave for conversion into a maternity benefit. They can fall ill, other people in the family may become sick and require a care-giver to take off from work.

Your solution may be what happens, although in reverse. Most Fortune 500 companies offer six to eight weeks of paid leave to mothers, Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York said this morning at a House markup. So it is entirely possible that the government may find it harder to compete against the private sector for young talent.

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Manassas, Va.: The family leave plan of four weeks seems reasonable. What are the private sector employers doing? The last time I interviewed with private-sector HR folks they laughed at our typical bonus because they were dripping in cash and stock options. Do you think that the government should look at that dichotomy? If I was a younger person with some college debt and lots of energy, I would be driven by a large cash bonus.

Stephen Barr: The Pentagon has found that young recruits would prefer a $20,000 signing bonus rather than being able to have matching contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan, I'm told. So, clearly, benefits such as paid parental leave are generational, to some extent. Interestingly, some congressional testimony indicated that young people seem willing to take a private-sector job with overall inferior benefits because of the lure of paid parental leave.

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New Mexico: Having children is a choice. Now they not only want to give four weeks of paid leave, but one also gets tax credits for children, etc. Apparently if you do not have children, you get to pay for those that do. This is not a fair deal in any way.

Stephen Barr: Both of our major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, believe in promoting family values. Some would contend that the fabric of the nation is built on the foundation of families. It is an interesting question you raise.

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Rockville, Md.: I'm a government employee. While I'm not against extra "vacation" for the birth of a child, it will cause resentment and problems in the office, as this is a benefit not everybody can use. We're done having kids. My wife took leave without pay before the kids were able to go into daycare. If the government is going to give a benefit, it has to do something for all employees -- not just the young (um, age discrimination). If my younger co-worker gets four weeks off when his/her child is born, I expect to be able to take four weeks off at least once in my career for something else.

Stephen Barr: Unfortunately, somewhere along the line it was decided that federal employee benefits have to be engraved in law. That makes them rather rigid, although solid, since it takes much political energy to abolish or modify them.

Private-sector companies are usually more creative. For example, some firms offer "personal days" that amount to paid leave for whatever reason you want, and this is in addition to vacation and sick leave. I wager we'll never seem that kind of flexibility inside the government.

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Arlington, Va.: Because my wife and I do not want children and we are both feds, how does this parental leave benefit us? Time for a lawsuit, class action, because this is discrimination. Now, if it applies to adopting, rescuing or purchasing a new puppy no problem. Cats and other companion animals should not be included. Since we are both lawyers we will sue if this becomes law!

Stephen Barr: I look forward to reporting on what should be a creative lawsuit!

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Charleston, S.C.: Gina Kolata of the New York Times recently wrote an article, Co-Payments Soar for Drugs With High Prices. Kolata quoted an official Office of Personnel Management document. Her text and OPM's quote state: "The answer came in a letter from the federal Office of Personnel Management, which negotiates with health insurers. ... They, the letter said, 'are high-cost drugs used to treat relatively few people suffering from complex conditions like anemia, cancer, hemophilia, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and human growth hormone deficiency.' "

By formulating this policy, however, Linda Springer and the Bush administration are placing a significant financial burden on the sickest federal employees, their families and children. Is Linda Springer's decision simply the unintended consequence of a Bush administration policy? This policy truly hurts the sickest and most vulnerable families. I can speak to this as a person who has an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis -- the financial burden is hard enough when a person is unable to work because a serious condition, let alone having to pay a co-payment that is 20 percent of a $8,000 infusion. Thank you for your time.

washingtonpost.com: Co-Payments Soar for Drugs With High Prices (New York Times, April 14)

Stephen Barr: I cannot speak to whether this is a policy decision by OPM or what happens in the marketplace when insurance companies try to control their costs. It seems clear that many of us were not aware of the impact that this decision would have on people who depend on what the insurance companies call specialty drugs.

But this problem underscores why it is important for federal employees to read their FEHBP program brochures. This case involves Kaiser Permanente, and the change to pharmacy benefits was announced in an open season brochure.

I understand that Kaiser is taking steps to find a remedy and make up the cost difference to affected pharmacy users.

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Rockville, Md.: Is The Post aware of the huge increases in drug copays begun this year by the Federal Health Plans? They can be devastating and hit those hardest in the worst medical condition. It seems to be a trend that will hit all health plans soon -- very troubling reversal of the protection that group plans traditionally have offered.

Stephen Barr: It may be time for a congressional review of FEHBP. This is a difficult area, and I'm not health care economist, for sure. But it seems to me that efforts to hold down premium increases often prompts an increase in co-insurance and other co-pays.

It's also important to note that many, many federal employees to not enroll in the flexible spending account program. It is an excellent way to use pre-tax dollars to pay for out-of-pocket health care costs, and a number of the medical insurance plans coordinate with the FSA program, reducing some of the paperwork for federal employees.

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Washington: My Canadian wife will get a full year of paid maternity leave (and her job back) on assignment here. Just for comparison.

Stephen Barr: Thank you for posting. According to congressional testimony, the United States is far behind other industrialized nations in providing paid parental leave.

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Washington: Steve: Wouldn't a statutory change on paid parental leave make more sense, garner more congressional support, and encourage responsibility if it was made available only to "married" individuals? As it appears now, this benefit encourages irresponsibility and poor family planning by making it available to anyone.

Stephen Barr: I'm not sure lawmakers have thought about this benefit in that way.

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Alexandria, Va.: Attorneys in private practice work much longer hours and are much easier to fire than federal employees. It may be easier to hire young employees by not making them wait six months to see if they are hired and having them apply for jobs that, despite officially being announced, really were intended for a specific person.

Stephen Barr: True enough, Alexandria. It would help recruitment if young people did not feel left in limbo after contacting agencies.

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Arlington, Va.: This is a follow-up to last week's credit card discussion and your column on Thursday (I believe). The situation I am in is much different than that covered last week. At my agency, we had to submit an application, including Social Security Number, to the credit card company to obtain the credit card (which must be used for business travel). After traveling, we submit for reimbursement, and the agency direct deposits the money into our account. The credit card bill comes to my residence and I am responsible for paying it. Sounds good in theory.

I always submit paperwork for reimbursement on the morning of my first day back from the trip; the problem is that my agency until recently was very slow in depositing the money into our accounts and often did not pay us before the bill was due. Because the credit card company has my social security number, and because I was saving for a house and could not afford any dings to my credit, I have on several occasions taken $1,500 to $2,000 from my savings to pay the credit card bill while awaiting for reimbursement. Some people in my agency just ignore the bills while they are awaiting reimbursement, but others, like me, front the money. I'm curious if you or any readers have comments on the correct course of action in this situation.

washingtonpost.com: OMB Gets Tough on Misuse of Government Credit Cards (Post, April 10)

Stephen Barr: Thank you, Arlington.

Your situation seems unfair. It seems that management needs to speed up processing here, or something.

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Washington: Our small independent agency consistently ranks among the lowest in employee satisfaction in OPM's Human Capital Survey. My informal comparison with friends at other agencies and what limited data I've been able to find indicates we trail in such metrics as bonuses/quality step increases, training opportunities, inter- and intra-agency details, etc. Have there been any studies correlating job satisfaction with some of those employee development/reward items I mentioned? Why should there be so much disparity from agency to agency?

Stephen Barr: You might look at the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service and American University. The rankings break data down in various ways that might be helpful to you.

Generally, each agency has its own culture, and each agency has budgets shaped by the White House and the Congress. Agencies that are short of cash often skimp on training for managers, and workplace quality indicators spiral downward. That's my view, and I may be wrong in drawing such a conclusion. But you have my two cents, so to speak.

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Fed pregnant with triplets: Will the maternity benefit -- if approved -- be per birth, or per pregnancy?

Stephen Barr: Congratulations!

I've not heard the matter framed as you have, but the lawmakers have spoken in terms of moms and dads taking paid leave upon the birth of a child or an adoption. So I would guess they mean per pregnancy.

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Hostile feds: I do not understand the hostility and resentment so many feds have against paid family leave. It strikes me as completely selfish and self-absorbed. Okay, so it won't benefit you, but it may benefit your neighbor. Are you against everything that doesn't directly benefit you? This kind of me-first, me-only attitude usually comes back to haunt you when you end up needing some kind of support yourself. For the record, I am a fed, have no kids and don't know if I will, but paid family leave in the government clearly is overdue.

Stephen Barr: Thank you for making that point.

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Re: Arlington, Va.: Because plane tickets and conference fees often are purchased well in advance of a trip, I often get the bill before I start travel. To avoid the credit card trap I submit a partial travel claim for the cost of my plane ticket and other advance fees, and then a final claim covering my hotel bill, rental car, parking and other expenses. When our travel department complained about having to do twice the work, my supervisor backed me up -- it's not my job to loan the government money!

Stephen Barr: Thanks for offering a solution. There may be times when you have to cut some slack to Uncle Sam, but it should not be a regular event.

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Re: Alexandria, Va.: Alexandria should spend a day at any component of the Department of Justice (where by far the greatest number of government attorneys are employed) if he/she actually believes that government attorneys work less than those in private practice!

Stephen Barr: Good to offer up a challenge! Reminds me of that ancient lawsuit that showed Justice had lawyers working lots of overtime but did not want to acknowledge overtime on the official books. Only at Justice, right?

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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.


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