Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, May 28, 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: Thank you for joining this discussion today. Looking forward to a free-for-all today. We've new rules on pay-for-performance at the Defense Department and talk of bringing back retirees to mentor and work on short-term projects, plus other odds and ends. Let's go to your questions and comments.

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Columbia, Md.: I'm in the CSRS and contemplating retiring next year with 29 years of federal service. I also have my 40 quarters in Social Security because of prior employment. Any realistic chance Congress will eliminate the so-called windfall elimination provision that would cut my Social Security benefit significantly? They've been talking about this issue for years but still no action ... sigh.

Stephen Barr: Difficult to believe that Congress will take any action on the windfall provision. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the windfall reduces the Social Security benefits of those who also draw an annuity from a system that does not include Social Security, such as CSRS.

As you note, proposals have been circulating for years to either repeal or modify the windfall provision. But the cost appears to great for Congress to shoulder.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is there any news of the passing of the sick leave bill for FERS employees? When can we expect a decision from Congress? There will still be abuse in the system if payment is made only over 500 hours.

Is there any news of the Windfall elimination bill which is on the floor of Congress, or is it a dead issue?

Stephen Barr: The House held a hearing on the proposal, which seeks to provide an incentive so that FERS employees don't burn up all their sick leave as they near retirement. Cost is an issue with this proposal, sponsored by Rep. Jim Moran. And I believe it is still pending before a House subcommittee.

Without quick action at the committee level, it is unlikely that this bill will make it through Congress this year.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: With gas prices rocketing skyward, will we see an increased emphasis on the possibilities of telework for government employees?

Stephen Barr: Not in the short term. Commuting costs are borne by the employee, not the agency, so there is no budget and spending issue for the government.

But many agencies are starting to promote telework, and higher gasoline prices and congested mass transit may inspire more federal employees to raise their hands and volunteer to work at home, at least one or two days a week. Shifting to telework as a regular order of business will require significant management changes in some offices, and I suspect the decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis.

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Rockville, Md.: Regarding your "not in the short term" response about telework, what about the Telework Enhancement Act of 2007 currently in Congress? S1000 and HR4106

Stephen Barr: I'm confident those bills will make it through Congress, either as standalones or folded into a larger piece of legislation. They create the presumption that all eligible employees should have a chance to telework, and they require agencies to create a telework officer and policies. All that is for the good, but I believe that establishing real telework programs is a long slog at many agencies, in part because they have not really analyzed costs and benefits.

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Washington: I'm covered under my wife's FEHBP, I'll be 65 in December. Where can I get info on what I should do about Medicare?

Stephen Barr: The Office of Personnel Management publishes a guide to Medicare; you can find it at this link.

That will give you a sense of how benefits are coordinated. The Medicare program also operates a Web site with lots of information you'll find useful. That's at www.medicare.gov.

You might also check services provided by employee organizations, such as the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, which keep up to date on benefits and changes to benefits.

Enjoy the transition to 65!

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Arlington, Va.: In today's column you discuss Reps. Davis and Waxman's concern over duplicative retiree drug coverage. I understood that it was a choice between either the Medicare Part D program or the FEHB drug coverage program of your choice. I am rather confused by their concern about duplicative costs.

Stephen Barr: Not exactly. When you are in FEHBP, you get drug coverage as part of your medical insurance premium. Part D is an optional program, with a separate premium. FEHBP drug coverage is generally considered superior to what Part D provides, so ordinarily there is no reason to take the Medicare Part D if you are in FEHBP.

Frankly, I was a bit surprised to learn 200,000 retirees (who are 65 and older) had signed up for both.

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Re: Windfall: Just a comment about this... my husband just retired from private sector and has more than 40 quarters. I (the Fed and not yet retired) have about 10 quarters so I won't get any of Social Security benefits. I called the Social Security Administration to see if I would be entitled to any of my husband's Social Security benefits and they said (and I quote) "Well you are pretty lucky to be getting that nice government pension and the money your husband paid into SSA will just benefit someone else."

Ahhhh! They really said that!

So of course my husband is livid because he paid all this money into SSA and will have no beneficiaries if he dies before I do or before he can start receiving it. So I advised him to start tapping into it at age the earliest age possible and hopefully he'll recoup some of the more than more than $100,000 that he put into it.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that vivid example!

Actually, I think you may be falling into the Government Pension Offset trap. GPO is a cousin of the Windfall Elimination Provision. GPO reduces spousal or survivor Social Security benefits that you would get from a spouse's Social Security-covered employment if you also get an annuity from CSRS.

If it is any consolation, a similar offset applies to private-sector employees. They get the higher of their own earned benefit or a spousal or survivor benefit, but not both.

Still, critics call the GPO a blunt instrument that disproportionately affects low-income women. There has been serious consideration, most recently by Sen. John Kerry, to modifying the offset formula, but no action has been taken. Any change would increase outlays from Social Security, which lawmakers are wary of doing.

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Centreville, Va.: RE: Social Security for CSRS. I had 40 credits last year, but this year's letter from SSA says I am not. Can you explain what's going on?

Second question: I thought the checks from SSA would be lot less if you get checks from CSRS even though the law allows.

Stephen Barr: Sounds like you need to visit a Social Security field office and clarify your status.

The Windfall Elimination Provision reduces but does not eliminate the Social Security benefit. The maximum reduction runs about $300 a month. I also would ask the field office representative to walk you through that formula, because it defies quick description.

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FERS Sick Leave Whiners: I'm getting sick and tired of FERS employees whining about their sick leave and threatening to abuse it when near retirement. Congress did away with crediting sick leave toward retirement over 20 years ago when they realized that they were offering a benefit to federal workers that wasn't followed in the private sector. Since that time, most private sector employers have completely done away with defined benefit pensions altogether, so crediting sick leave toward retirement is even more of a moot issue now. FERS employees should be grateful that they will be getting a FERS annuity that is indexed to inflation in addition to their 401(k)-type TSP. Most people would kill for that.

And as for the threat to abuse sick leave toward the end of their careers, I would hope that their supervisors would act on that and suspend the employees without pay for doing so. Even better, if one or two FERS employees were fired for such abuse just before becoming eligible to retire, I think that would put everyone else on notice and put an end to that practice rather quickly.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that reality check! Folks, any comments on this perspective?

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Washington: I'm in FERS and if I leave before my minimum retirement age, do I have to defer getting the money until I am 56? Yuck.

Stephen Barr: You need to check in with your retirement counselor on this. My understanding is that if you take deferred retirement benefits, they don't begin until age 62. But this is a tricky area, and others considerations could be in play.

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Re: Telework and Higher Gas: You stated that "shifting to telework as a regular order of business will require significant management changes in some offices, and I suspect the decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis."

I can't agree more. In my office where most of us had teleworked for 10-plus years, that benefit (not right) was taken away when a new manager was hired. She does not like her employees to be unavailable when she calls. She wants face-to-face meetings, not phone calls or e-mails. Even though telework was going strong here and worked out great for all employees, a new manager on the scene can change everything ... and it did. (By the way -- an employee mentioned the commute, gas prices, etc., and the response was "move closer to work.")

Stephen Barr: Please tell me that this manager is a young political appointee and not a career manager...

Seriously, these sort of conflicts are bound to pop up, so hopefully the pending bills, if approved, will force agencies to think like a Harvard Business School analyst and figure out the business case for telework.

I find your manager's views amusing, in part, because with technology today, an office telephone can be put on forwarding so that all your calls come right into your cell phone. Then there are PDAs that let you track your e-mail without being in the office. Communication should not be an issue for the modern-day manager, in my humble view.

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Re: Medicare Part D: You stated: "Frankly, I was a bit surprised to learn 200,000 retirees (who are 65 and older) had signed up for both."

I am not surprised, Stephen, because many employees do not understand Medicare Parts A & B much less Part D and how it works, compared to what the FEHB coverage provides. From a benefits officer standpoint, I can't tell you how many times I've tried to educate my employees; providing them with information (e-mails, pamphlets, meetings, etc.) but most don't take the time to understand it all. When preparing for retirement and usually in that last year, that's when all the questions come in ... employees should prepare well in advance of their retirement date.

Stephen Barr: Well said. People should learn about benefit options and do a better job of planning for retirement. But it is human nature to focus on the task at hand, the day's work, and put off study of long-term matters. Keep up the good fight!

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Vienna, Va.: I agree with Sick Leave Whiners comment above. As someone who does not, and will not, abuse the system, I would also like to see abuse of sick leave cracked down on more regularly since not doing so effectively rewards those people with extra vacation time above what honest people get!

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Vienna!

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FERS sick leave "abuse": Let's face it, it would take a lot of work to document that a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission employee who calls in "sick" on multiple Fridays when he/she nears retirement is abusing sick leave. Most agencies require a doctor's note for at least three successive days, and there would be tremendous uproar if you had to go the doctor if you were out just one day. Why should everyone suffer because of a few abusers? And firing somebody just a few months short of retirement? I'd like to see the supervisor with the guts to do that! That would be front-page story in this very newspaper about abusive federal managers who are cheating long-time civil servants of their retirement. Not much chance of that happening!

Stephen Barr: Excellent point. This is one reason that this issue seems so intractable. I hear from some managers who find FERS sick leaves make them reconsider whether a person can be reliable or counted on as much as they once were, but I also don't see any real way to try to police abuse. When people are sick, they should stay home and not spread germs. One possible approach is to do more training -- be more explicit about the dos and don'ts of sick leave, and hope people do the right thing.

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Maryland: I have sympathy for the individual with the new boss who took away telework. While we did not have the option to telework, we got a new boss this past year who immediately decided we all needed to work 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This totally disrupted people's family lives, carpools, and other commitments, just to satisfy this person's ego. While I know that new managers need to be able to set a tone, I don't think setting a tone for the office this way makes any friends. In fact, it probably alienates the employees more to the new boss.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Maryland. Yes, flexitime is emerging as an issue, too. Perhaps more than telework, this is an issue where managers should provide considerable leeway, given the traffic congestion and the mass transit breakdowns that slow commutes, usually on an unpredictable basis.

And my goodness, what is wrong with 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.?

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Arlington, Va.: I'm a brand new Army civilian employee converted from an onsite contractor just this Monday. I'm told "my papers won't be in the system" for at least a week. Seems to me I'm out health care coverage until then. Any ideas on how I can avoid going without coverage until then?

Stephen Barr: Sounds like you need to talk with the former employer and your new employer. Some companies provide health insurance on a month-to-month basis, so you might be covered by your older employer under that insurance policy. If not, seems like your old employer should give you a chance to buy at least a month's worth of Cobra, so you have continuation of coverage. And, if you have joined the Army and signed up for FEHBP, you might be covered already even though you don't have the paperwork or an insurance card.

Health coverage is critical, as we all know. So don't hesitate to check it out.

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Washington: Mr Barr -- I saw that you took the buyout. Thank you so much for your wonderful coverage of the federal workforce. Your column has long been the first thing I read in the paper. Good luck to you!

Stephen Barr: Thank you! I have really enjoyed covering the federal community for The Post, and my bosses are big supporters of the Federal Diary and are in the process of recruiting a new author. Please treat that person as kindly as you have treated me!

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Stephen Barr: With that, we'll call it a wrap for this week. See you back here at noon next Wednesday!

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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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