A budget crunch at the Justice Department is putting the squeeze on a popular benefit that has been provided employees since 1998.

The Justice Department has decided to no longer use a central fund to pay for a research and referral service that helps employees deal with prenatal, child care, parenting, elder care, higher education and financial planning issues.

Starting Oct. 1, the central fund, which took money from Justice bureaus and divisions to pay for the benefit, will disappear. The various parts of the department will decide on an individual basis whether to continue the employee benefit and pay the vendor or to drop out of the program.

The employee benefit is provided through a contract with LifeCare Inc., a Westport, Conn., company that has been in business about 20 years.

The decision to no longer centrally manage the work-life benefit has surprised some work-life experts in the government. Some of the experts said they regarded Justice's decision as a step backward, since most agencies have justified such services as a way to keep employees focused on their jobs rather than have them juggle family issues at work -- spending time on the phone to figure out which nursing home would be best for a parent, for example.

The experts spoke on condition they not be identified, saying it was against their agency's policies to comment on the actions of other departments.

Joanne W. Simms, a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's management division, said Justice employees "are not going to be left in the lurch. We would not do that."

In addition to LifeCare, the department's bureaus and divisions offer employee assistance programs that also provide child care, elder care, health and financial counseling, Simms said.

The department also subsidizes child care for employees and provides for alternative child-care arrangements, she said.

Simms said the department is trying to weed out duplicative programs to save money and noted that some components, such as the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. attorney offices, face budget shortfalls.

LifeCare is paid about $760,000 annually to provide employees with research and referrals, she said. The Department of Homeland Security, which took over many of Justice's immigration functions, pays an additional $100,000 for the service, she said.

About 10 percent of the department's 100,000 employees have taken advantage of the service, which is typical for these kinds of benefits, a LifeCare representative said.

Thomas Carey, a LifeCare vice president, said: "We have been proud to have served the Department of Justice. . . . We sincerely hope they continue to offer a high-quality work-life program to their employees who need this level of support now more than ever."

A New Count

Almost everyone agrees that there were too few people at the CIA who spoke and translated Arabic prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Timothy J. Roemer, a 9/11 commission member, recently said at a Capitol Hill briefing that the CIA had only 12 Arabic speakers on the day that jetliners were hijacked and slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Roemer said he based the tally, reported in this column Sunday, on talking points prepared by the commission staff. Roemer apologized for using a wrong number, noting that the number is not part of the commission's official report.

Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, said the agency had about 150 Arabic speakers prior to Sept. 11.

"That said, we are working very hard to increase our capabilities in this mission-critical area. Hiring more Arabic speakers has been and continues to be a top priority for us," Mansfield said. "We have focused recruiting efforts and resources in areas with substantial Arab American populations."

Talk Shows

John Palguta, vice president of policy and research for the Partnership for Public Service, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on federalnewsradio.com.

William Gray, deputy commissioner of systems at the Social Security Administration, will be the guest on "The Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

"Bush or Kerry: Which One Is in the Federal Employees' Corner?" will be the topic of the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com