The Office of Personnel Management on Monday released a policy clearing the way for increased recruitment, retention and relocation incentives — the “3Rs,” in government lingo — for employees in high-demand positions. Agencies normally may pay up to an additional 25 percent of salary, but with OPM’s permission they can pay up to 50 percent more.
“Agencies may request that OPM waive one or more of these limits to address a critical agency need, such as agency programs or projects related to the President’s declaration of a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 pandemic,” OPM said, inviting agencies to make requests and providing a template for them to use.
Also on Monday, OPM added a feature to the government’s central recruiting site, usajobs.gov, in which applicants can search for positions related to covid-19 response in a variety of career fields. It previously had created a section of that site for current federal employees to apply for temporary rotational assignments.
OPM also previously told agencies they can order current employees “to perform work outside of the typical work assignment” under a White House memo telling them to pare down to their most critical work.
Those were among a number of moves over the past two months affecting both current and prospective employees, especially those with skills needed for virus response.
“There’s real talent needs now, and I think there are going to be substantial talent needs to come,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. “The government is going to need to do a fair amount of hiring to meet the needs that are current and that are coming down the pike.
“Our government is about solving society’s problems, and our problems just got a lot harder,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s pretty much everywhere across government that there are different, sharp, challenging demands. That’s going to require great leadership and the resources to get it done.”
Stier said the incentives can be an effective tool. The most recent data, from a 2017 Government Accountability Office report, said that in the prior year, about 13,600 federal employees out of a federal workforce of some 2.1 million received retention incentives, while about 7,200 received recruitment incentives, and 4,400 received relocation incentives.
The central personnel agency earlier had allowed several other special practices for hiring, including allowing shortcut procedures to hire for temporary positions.
It also invited agencies to request permission to rehire retirees without the standard reduction in their annuities equal to their salaries while granting that authority to the Veterans Affairs Department.
VA soon after created a site where it invites “interested retired physicians, nurses, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, respiratory therapists and other medical professionals” to apply for positions in direct patient care, telehealth and its national call center.
VA, which has long struggled to fill its available health-care positions, recently projected that absenteeism among its employees “may reach 40 percent, due to illness, the need to care for ill family members, or fear of infection during the peak weeks of a community outbreak.”
However, VA is only one of many federal agencies being stressed either by direct response efforts or by additional work under recently enacted virus relief laws. Those include, for example, the IRS, which must handle a host of changes in tax laws and set up a new program of direct payments to individuals, and the Small Business Administration, which is managing a new loan program.
Another of those laws, enacted in mid-March, expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act by creating new sick-leave entitlements, one of which applies to all federal employees, according to the Labor Department. But while the law specifies that the leave was to be available starting April 1, it is not yet in place for federal employees.
In an email, OPM communications director Anthony Marucci said the law requires that the emergency sick leave be paid at a rate which “our payroll systems are not set up to do. Agencies and payroll providers need time to make system adjustments and set up procedures.”
If an employee is subject to a quarantine order, has been advised by a health-care provider to self-quarantine or is experiencing symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis, the law provides paid leave of up to 80 hours (or a two-week equivalent for a part-time employee). That leave is paid at the employee’s regular pay rate or the federal minimum wage, up to $511 daily and $5,110 total.
The law also authorizes up to $200 daily and $2,000 total for federal employees to care for someone under quarantine, to care for a child whose school or day care is closed for virus-related reasons, or who is experiencing symptoms “substantially similar” to those of covid-19.
“For those whose ability to work is limited by child care responsibilities related to COVID-19, it will provide needed flexibility and financial assistance,” said John Hatton, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association director of legislative and political affairs. “We encourage agencies and OPM to make sure employees are aware of these provisions and have the information necessary to take appropriate leave in response to this crisis,” he said in an email.