Federal employees will soon be allowed to claim time off for travel during off-duty hours, the Office of Personnel Management announced yesterday in a memo to agency heads.

OPM said that the new perk for federal travelers will take effect no later than Jan. 28, and perhaps sooner, if regulations can be written and published.

The creation of a new form of compensatory time off is part of the Federal Workforce Flexibility Act, which President Bush signed Oct. 30. The law seems likely to be the only major action on federal employment policies taken by Congress this year.

Many federal workers are eager to take advantage of the compensatory time, especially those required to travel on official business during off-duty hours, such as flying on a Sunday to attend a Monday morning meeting. Current rules make it difficult for employees to qualify for pay while traveling outside normal business hours.

Three other provisions of the law kicked in Oct. 30, OPM Director Kay Coles James told agency heads in the memo. The changes, aimed at making the government more competitive as an employer, will:

* Provide members of the Senior Executive Service and others in senior-level positions with 26 vacation days each year. Previously, SES and senior-level employees accrued vacation at varied rates, with new employees receiving 13 days of vacation annually.

* Require agencies to pay more attention to how they train employees and to strategically identify employees who can be groomed to be managers. Also, the memo said, "This program will include training for managers on actions, options and strategies managers may use to address mentoring employees, improving employee performance and productivity, conducting performance appraisals, and unacceptable performance."

* Shift primary responsibility for the "critical pay" program from the Office of Management and Budget to OPM. The program allows agencies to pay higher salaries to attract experts into the federal government for short periods. Congressional aides have said the program has not lived up to its potential under OMB control. Salaries under the program can go as high as $175,700, but the president can waive that limit and approve higher salaries.

Other government-wide changes will take effect in April and May, James said.

The law changes vacation policy for newly hired mid-career professionals, so that those with substantial non-federal career experience can be given more vacation time. For example, the law permits agencies to grant 20 vacation days a year, instead of 13 days, to private-sector professionals who join the government with 10 years of experience in their field. The vacation policy change for such hires will take effect no later than April 28, OPM said.

Another of the law's popular provisions -- more generous recruitment, retention and relocation bonuses for top-notch employees -- will take effect May 1, OPM said.

The provision, for example, waives current limits, which hold bonuses to 25 percent of base pay, and will permit recruitment bonuses to rise to 100 percent of base pay under certain conditions. Employees will be required to serve in jobs for a certain number of years in exchange for the bonuses.

The law's chief sponsor was Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio). Other members of Congress also backed the legislation, including Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.) and Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.).

The National Treasury Employees Union lobbied for the time-off provision for federal travelers.

Retirement

James R. Bowman, a senior cataloguer at the Library of Congress, retires today with 57 years of federal service.

Diary Live Today

Walton Francis, an economist and the principal author of Checkbook's 2005 Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees, will discuss health insurance options in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com. Please join us.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com