Federal Times Blogs

The Postal Service (yawn) defaults again

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If a smidgen of suspense lingered earlier today about whether much of the government would shut down tomorrow, there was never the slightest doubt that the U.S. Postal Service would skip a legally required retiree health care payment for the third straight year.

Pretty much ever since the Postal Service defaulted on the 2012 payment, USPS leaders have been warning they would miss the $5.6 billion obligation due by midnight tonight; in another 15 minutes or so, the agency will officially be in default. Unlike past years, however, when an anxious Congress either cut the amount of the annual installment or pushed back the deadline, this year’s no-show routine now seems . . . routine.

But Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., sponsors of a Senate bill that would give the Postal Service some relief on the “prepayment” requirement, put out a joint statement calling the default a reminder of the agency’s broader financial woes. After holding two hearings on the bill earlier this month, Carper said, “I hope to move our bipartisan legislation swiftly through our committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible.”

The current pre-funding schedule is laid out in the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. According to numbers included in a Government Accountability Office report, the agency has made $17.9 billion in required payments and-as of tomorrow–will have defaulted on $16.7 billion worth.

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NIST cancels conference as shutdown looms

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At least one federal conference is being postponed this week because of a potential government shutdown.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is postponing its Cloud Computing and Mobility Forum this week “because we could not guarantee NIST’s facility would be open on the first day of the meeting, Oct. 1,” according to an agency spokeswoman. “The meeting has not been rescheduled.”

More than 500 people had registered for the conference, including about 130 federal employees. Many federal employees would be forced to stay home without pay if Congress doesn’t strike a budget deal by midnight.

Just at DoD, some 400,000 employees — or about half of the civilian workforce — will be sent home on unpaid furloughs if a partial shutdown begins Tuesday, Comptroller Robert Hale said late last week. During a Sept. 27 news briefing, Hale said a shutdown would halt travel and training plans for activities not deemed excepted.

“As of today, no other conferences have been postponed,” according to NIST. “Some scheduled conferences could be affected by a shutdown, depending on the duration of the shutdown and how much lead time each conference requires.”

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OMB posts updated shutdown contingency plans

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Earlier today, the Office of Management and Budget posted updated contingency plans on its web site. You can find them here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/contingency-plans

First-class stamp price would rise to 49 cents under USPS proposal

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The sound you heard from the U.S. Postal Service this morning was the other shoe dropping in the wake of its its failed attempt to end Saturday mail delivery earlier this year. The “exigent” rate increase proposed today would raise about $2 billion per year, or roughly the same amount that cutting Saturday delivery was supposed to save.

Much of the added revenue would come from a hike in the price of a first-class stamp from 46 cents to 49 cents. The proposal would also increase the charge for additional letter ounces from 20 cents to 21 cents, raise postcard prices by a penny to 34 cents, and  push the cost of an international letter to $1.15.

After the Postal Service dropped the planned Saturday delivery cuts in April, its board told agency officials both to try to renegotiate existing labor contracts and study possibilities for raising more money. The first idea predictably went nowhere with postal unions and managerial groups. So the only option is the rate increase announced today that would take effect Jan. 26 if—and this is a mighty big question mark—the Postal Regulatory Commission approves.

In a letter cited in the USPS news release, board Chairman Mickey Barnett laid the blame on Congress for failing to pass legislation that would put the Postal Service back on a secure long-term financial footing.

“Of the options currently available to the Postal Service to align costs and revenues, increasing postage prices is a last resort that reflects extreme financial challenges,” said Barnett in the letter. “However, if these financial challenges were alleviated by the timely enactment of laws that close a $20 billion budget gap, the Postal Service would reconsider its pricing strategy. We are encouraged by the recent introduction of comprehensive postal reform legislation in Congress, and despite an uncertain legislative process, we are hopeful that legislation can be enacted this year.”

Of course, that rationale will be cold comfort to the mailing industry trade groups who have already re-united to kill the proposal just as they blocked a similar effort back in 2010. The issue is likely to dominate tomorrow’s previously scheduled hearing on postal issues before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.


The proposed increase is likely to dominate

What’s your take on the FEHBP 2014 health plan rates?

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Hi everyone:

As most Federal Times readers probably know, the Office of Personnel Management  yesterday announced 2014 rates for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, both for health plans as well as dental and vision. In comparison with trends from just a couple of years ago, next year’s increases are relatively modest, but–as federal employees unions were quick to point out–they are still increases as a time when many feds have lost income because of furloughs and everyone remains under the pay freeze now in place for almost three years.

We want to get your feedback. Are the increases for your health plan manageable or will it be tough to make the additional payments? Or is the impact somewhere in between? If you’re interested in talking to us for an upcoming story, please send me an email at sreilly@federaltimes.com and let me know how best to reach you.


Sean Reilly

Staff Writer

Federal Times

USPS consultant to divine future of stamps under $500K+ contract

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What might the future hold for the humble postal stamp? The financially challenged U.S. Postal Service is paying a New York consulting firm named Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve more than a half-million dollars to find out.

“Who will be buying stamps in 2019, 2024 and 2034? What will they be used for?,” reads the company’s description of the $566,000 task order awarded last month. “How can we embed innovation and new thinking into stamps, to engage America’s coming generations and the [USPS’s] existing and new customers?”

After starting the job early last month, BrainReserve–whose website touts its consulting specialty as “applied futurism”–is supposed to finish up work by mid-October, the statement indicates. Faith Popcorn, the company’s CEO, is billing the Postal Service at an hourly rate of $836. Labor fees for other BrainReserve staff involved in the project range from $91 to $334 per hour.

According to the description, a copy of which was obtained by Federal Times, BrainReserve is to devise strategies both to slow the “predictable decline” in stamp use and to “reinvent and reimagine” stamp relevance to promote growth. While sales of the adhesive-backed paper squares and rectangles have been steadily waning as Americans turn to the Internet to pay bills and stay in touch, they still garner $8 billion annually for the Postal Service, the company says.

“This is a complex, multi-dimensional issue,” it concludes. “The methodology requires in-depth investigation, analysis and ideation in order to Trend-correct the current decline in USPS Stamp volume and begin to structure powerful mechanisms for growth.”

A BrainReserve employee referred questions to the Postal Service, where spokeswoman Toni DeLancey said the firm was hired in January under a competitively awarded indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract to support product innovation and brand management. BrainReserve, which had not previously done business with the Postal Service, was founded in 1974 and has worked for American Express, Campbell Soup Co. and other Fortune 500 firms, DeLancey said in an email.

It is “important to note,” she added, that BrainReserve’s “statements of work” for this and other assignments are not USPS documents. The “terms and conditions of any task order awarded may be different from what is reflected in these documents.” Nagisa Manabe, the Postal Service executive vice-president in charge of sales and marketing, was not available for an interview late last week.

The stamp project is one of five task orders that BrainReserve has so far received, DeLancey said. Another is an almost $1.1 million endeavor to explore the possibility of using letter carriers to provide paid home visitation services to the elderly and ill. Those services could include a daily personal visit and regular checks to make sure that customers are using medical devices or taking prescribed medications, according to the company statement of work for that task order.

Since its founding, the Postal Service has connected people, often going beyond the call of duty to provide “caring personal connections in times of crisis,” the document adds. The home visit concept “builds upon and formalizes this powerful aspect of the USPS heritage.”

At the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, one of two unions representing the workers who would play a central role in any such visitation program, a spokesman said the group is not currently involved in the project, but would “very much” like to be. Efforts to get comment from the National Association of Letter Carriers were unsuccessful.

For anyone who’s interested, you can check out the statements of work for the two task orders here.

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OPM, background contractor on vetting of Navy Yard shooter

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Before he shot and killed 12 people in the Navy Yard rampage, Aaron Alexis had a string of arrests spanning years. That’s led many to wonder how he could’ve received and retained the security clearance that enabled him to enter the secure building in the first place. On Thursday, the company that performed the background check on Alexis in 2007 and the agency that oversaw the work issued separate statements in response to questions about the shooting. Here they are in their entirety:

“The security clearance process begins when an agency identifies a person who will require eligibility for access to classified information.  The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the level of access required. As the risk to national security increases, so does the level of investigation.  The existing investigative standard for a Secret clearance is a National Agency Check with Law and Credit (NACLC).  The NACLC consists of a questionnaire completed by the person being investigated and checks of federal records, credit history records, and criminal history records. When OPM undertook the background investigation for Aaron Alexis in 2007, with support from a Government contractor, USIS, the appropriate federal records were obtained, and the required fieldwork was performed.    OPM has reviewed the 2007 background investigation file for Aaron Alexis, and the agency
believes that the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.”

“Background investigations are conducted by OPM at the request of an agency and done in accordance with Executive Order 12968 and applicable investigative standards as a part of the overall security clearance process. Once the investigation is complete,
it is submitted to the adjudicating agency for review. Adjudication officials at the relevant agency evaluate the investigation and make the decision to grant or deny the security clearance. If the officials have any concerns with the investigation
once it is received, or would like additional information beyond that required by the standards, they have the opportunity to request that OPM perform further work before the agency makes its final decision.”

“OPM’s involvement with matters related to Aaron Alexis’ security clearance ended when we submitted the case to the Department of Defense (DoD) for adjudication in December 2007. DoD did not ask OPM for any additional investigative actions after it
received the completed background investigation.”

- Mert Miller, associate director for federal investigative services at OPM

“Today we were informed that in 2007, USIS conducted a background check of Aaron Alexis for OPM. We are contractually prohibited from retaining case information gathered as part of the background checks we conduct for OPM and therefore are unable to comment further on the nature or scope of this or any other background check.”

- Ray Howell, spokesman for USIS



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How would your agency handle a shutdown?

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The odds of a partial government shutdown starting Oct. 1 spiked with House Republicans’ decision today to push a 2014 continuing resolution that would also cut off funding for “Obamacare” implementation. What would your agency do? A starting point can be found at the Office of Management and Budget’s website. Back in 2011, (i.e., several crises ago), OMB collected links to the contingency plans for dozens of agencies on a single page and–perhaps presciently–never took them down. Here’s the link:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/contingency-plans.

In a memo today, OMB Director Sylvia Burwell told agencies to update those plans, which determine–among many other issues–which employees will be subject to unpaid furloughs.

Of course, even if a shutdown doesn’t materialize, agencies will likely be operating under a continuing resolution that leaves funding at its current post-sequester benchmark–not exactly something to look forward to. Last week, for example, The New York Times reported that the FBI was planning ten furlough days for most of its workforce, accompanied by closings of its headquarters and regional offices on those days.

A bureau spokeswoman wouldn’t confirm those details, but at the FBI Agents Association, President Reynaldo Tariche said today that there is “grave concern” among agents about the potential impact on investigations and other casework.

The visitor control center at Navy’s Building 197

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 Access into the Washington Navy Yard’s Building 197, where a shooting rampage in Washington left at least a dozen people dead Monday, includes a security clearance check and vetting by contract-hired “visitor control technicians,” contract records show.

Authorities have identified Aaron Alexis, 34, a Navy veteran, as the dead gunman. While it’s unclear how Alexis got into the building Monday morning, the Associated Press reported that he may have used someone’s identification.

In April, the Navy hired Kansas-based contractor Transtecs Corp. for “visitor control office support services” at the Washington Navy Yard, according to the government’s online procurement database.

While there’s no indication that Transtecs’ work has come under question in the shooting, contract records related to the company’s hiring do shed light on the sort of vetting the Navy requires to get into Building 197, which houses the Navy’s Sea Systems Command.

A 30-page task order on the company’s website says Transtecs provides the labor to support the ID badging system and associated equipment at the building.

A person who answered the phone for Transtecs Monday said the company declined to comment.

Entry into the building includes a check of the Joint Personnel Adjudication System to verify an individual’s clearance level prior to authorizing access, the task order shows.

“The contractor shall utilize the government furnished Picture Perfect Access Control System to issue visitor badges and code Control Access Card (CAC) badges permitting entry,” the task order also states.

“The contractor shall code all CAC’s and visitor badges after the vetting process is completed authorizing access into specific or all NAVSEA buildings, as appropriate.”

The company’s website lists multiple federal agencies as clients, including the Navy, Air Force, Army and Defense Logistics Agency.

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Postal Service: Almost 16K EAS employees eligible for early-out

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Some 15,600 U.S. Postal Service managers. supervisors and postmasters are getting notice this week that they qualify for the mail carrier’s latest early retirement  offer. The offer applies to eligible field employees covered by the Executive and Administrative Schedule, USPS spokeswoman Patricia Licata said in reply to emailed questions from Federal Times. That figure (15,580, to be exact) represents about one-third of the 42,239 field EAS employees on the rolls as of last week. For the Postal Service as a whole, the ranks of the EAS workforce numbered 50,346, excluding the USPS inspector general’s office and the Postal Inspection Service.

Those who accept may opt to leave by the end of December or the end of January. The decision deadline is Nov. 29.  The “voluntary early retirement” offer does not extend to Postal Career Executive Service members, Licata said, contrary to earlier assertions by the National Association of Postal Supervisors.

In an announcement posted on an internal employee website late last week, the Postal Service linked the offer to new mail processing plant rankings accompanied by changes to EAS staffing criteria. The “change process” could include a reduction-in-force, the announcement said.

The early-out “is only being offered to lessen the impact on employees who are potentially being impacted by organizational change,” Licata said. Asked whether the Postal Service has a target for the number of takers, she said that “employees make individual determinations to either accept or decline VER offers.”

Under the standard federal package, employees can retire early if they are at least 50 years old with a minimum of 20 years’ service or at any age with at least 25 years’ service. The offer does not include a financial incentive, aka “buyout.”

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