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Letter to the editor: No end to unfair pay, retirement for federal firefighters

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(Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/Getty Images) Members of the U.S. Forest Service clear brush at the Colby Fire on a hillside above Highway 39 on January 17, 2014 in Azusa, California.

Hello everyone. What follows below is a letter to the editor discussing federal firefighter pay and retirement. Under the current system, federal firefighters work 53 hours a week to earn the same as other federal workers in the grade scale system. In addition, firefighters work an additional 38 hours of overtime a pay period, which does not count toward retirement and with only a fraction more pay.

The letter below spells out the reader’s concerns in full, and feel free to add your thoughts, opinions or comments below.

Dear Federal Times,

I am a retired federal firefighter, and have been for just over 10 years.  During my time as a federal firefighter I was one of the very few to try and understand our pay system – and it was one complicated mess.

Until about 2002 our pay was actually in three parts.  The first was pay we received for our first 80 hours in a pay period (we worked 144 hours in a pay period), and our pay was exactly the same GS rate that every other GS employee earned.  Then, thanks to a law passed in 1954, we received 25 percent premium pay for working “nights, weekends and holidays” and, for some reason known only to the then, Civil Service Commission, we earned this “25 percent” for the next 64 hours.  NOT, mind you, in addition to the hourly rate we earned dur

ing the first 80, but just “25 percent”.   Thus, if our hourly rate was $10.00 an hour for the first 80, we earned just $2.50 an hour for the next 64 hours of our 144 hour pay

period (and remember that the hours we worked over 80 were MANDATORY hours.

Then, in 1976, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act and it included “overtime” for Federal firefighters, but it also mandated that our “regular hours” were actually 106 in a two week pay period.  The Office of Personnel Management stepped in and determined that we had already earned “time” for all 144 hours and added our pay together ($10.00 an hour x 80 = $800.00 and $2.50 x 64 = $160.  $800 + 160 = $960.00 /144 =$6.67 an hour) and our average hourly rate dropped from $10.00 an hour to $6.67 an hour…and we were only entitled to 1/2 of that ($3.33) as our “overtime rate” for our last 38 hours in the 144 hour pay period.

Therefore a Firefighter earning $10.00 an hour would receive $800.00 + $160.00 (25% Premium Pay) + $126.67 overtime for the last 38 hours for “overtime”.  Please note that this is how our pay was calculated and it was so complicated that many of our Payroll offices never understood it.

THEN Congress decided, in 1998, to “fix” this mess.  The law they concocted eliminated the 25 percent Premium Pay and took the same annual salary earned by every GS employee, that is divided by 2087 to determine the employee’s “hourly rate” and decided to divide that SAME annual salary by 2756 for Federal firefighters (because, after all, there was a law that decided that our work week is 53 hours and NOT 40 as it is for all other GS employees, and this is how Federal firefighters are paid to this very day.

Therefore, if a GS annual salary is, for example, $20,000.  It is divided by 2087 to arrive at $9.58 an hour for the 40 hour GS employee, but it is divided by 2756 (53 hours x 52 weeks = 2756) and the Federal Firefighter earns $7.26 an hour.

Therefore, a Federal firefighter works 2756 hours to earn exactly the same annual salary that a regular GS employee earns working just 2087 hours.  In other words, the Federal Firefighter is at work an extra 669 hours to earn what the GS employee earns NOT working those extra hours.

Further, the overtime earned by the Federal Firefighter is still earned for the last 38 hours of the 144 hours he or she is at work.  That overtime rate is (base on the $7.26 hourly rate) is $10.89, or $1.31 more that the regular hourly rate for the regular GS employee.

Somehow someone somewhere thought this was “fair” and it’s been how Federal Firefighters have been paid for well over 12 years.  AND, to make matters worse, the 64 hours we are REQUIRED to work every 2 weeks in addition to the 80 hours every Federal employee also works, in not counted toward our retirement.  NOT ONE CENT of the MANDATORY overtime we work is factored into our retirements.

Further, several studies over the last 30 years, have determined that Federal Firefighters have an “average life span” to age 57.  I personally have know at least 7 federal firefighters who died before they were 50.

Now, there is a reason I am writing this.  Retired Federal firefighters worked at rates normally between GS-5 to GS-12, and retirements we earned are nowhere near at a “living wage”.  Not only is our income reduced by nearly 1/2 without our overtime factored into our retirements, our “high 3″ usually forces another reduction in our retirement income.

We have widows of retired Federal Firefighters struggling to survive because their spousal annuity is even further reduced.  One I know lost her home two years ago and another is struggling to keep hers as I write this.

Now I know that over the years Congress provided a pay increase to Federal employees based upon the cost of living throughout the United States but, again, this didn’t apply to most retired Federal Firefighters, further crippling their ability to survive on their retirement annuities.

I’d really like to know how our Congressional Representatives could allow this to happen to Federal Firefighters and, more to the point, how could our UNIONS allow this to happen to us and the then take “credit” for a pay change that didn’t fix anything but to make our being screwed “less complicated”, and then simply allowed us to retire with annuities that force most of us to find additional jobs that some of us work in until our mid 70′s.  I thought our civil service retirement was supposed guarantee us a “living wage” in retirement.  No such thing yet exists for us.

I’m sure this letter will generate excuses by the parties that spearheaded the changes made in 1998 that were supposed to “fix” our pay issues.  I have heard them for decades.  NOW I want to hear how unions (ANY union for that matter) proposes to come up with a retirement system for us that counts our overtime hours into our annuities, and provides retirement calculations that aren’t based upon an artificially lowered regular hourly rate or an overtime base upon that lowered hourly rate, and don’t bother writing a “rebuttal” unless you can also provide what you are doing to fix this for us.  We’ve all heard the nonsense before.

All this change did was to guarantee Federal Firefighters to be the butt of insults and worse from other (municipal, state and county) firefighters who see us as insane to have worked in a career where we were called upon to save lives of those earning far more than we were while they could run from the fire.  We had to stand and fight the fire and now we deserve to be paid an annuity that can actually allow us to retire.

Some us know we got screwed.  Others will soon.

Respectfully,

Mark D. Hutchings

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Some TSP funds doing way, way better than others

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Hello everyone! I just wanted to share with you the TSP returns for June, with their year to date and their 12 month views as well. As you can see, things are in the black again, but some funds are growing much faster than others.

G Fund

F Fund

C Fund

S Fund

I Fund

Month

0.19%

0.14%

2.07%

4.45%

0.99%

YTD

1.17%

4.37%

7.18%

6.21%

5.06%

12 Month

2.30%

5.00%

24.71%

26.95%

23.97%

L Income

L 2020

L 2030

L 2040

L 2050

Month

0.58%

1.19%

1.52%

1.77%

1.96%

YTD

2.46%

4.14%

4.91%

5.43%

5.89%

12 Month

6.74%

13.99%

17.30%

19.70%

22.03%

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Postal Service again restrained on top executives’ pay in ’12

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The U.S. Postal Service continued to keep a comparatively tight lid in 2012 on senior executive salaries, according to its recently released annual report to Congress. By law, the Postal Service has to list all employees whose pay exceeded that of a Cabinet secretary. For calendar 2012, that threshold was $199,700; a dozen USPS executives and officers made more than that, down from 13 in 2011 and 38 in 2010, according to the official rundown.

Here’s the 2012 list (found on p. 66 of the annual report):

Paul Vogel, president, digital solutions, $312,175* **

Pat Donahoe, postmaster general and chief executive officer: $276,840

David C. Williams, inspector general: $263,684**

Ron Stroman, deputy postmaster general: $245,000

Anthony Vegliante, chief human resources officer and executive vice president: $240,000*

Joseph Corbett, chief financial officer and executive VP: $239,000

Megan Brennan, chief operating officer and executive VP: $235,000

Mary Anne Gibbons, general counsel and executive VP: $230,000*

Ellis Burgoyne, chief information officer and executive VP: $230,000*

Jo Ann Feindt, VP, Southern area operations: $224,300

Dean Granholm, VP, Pacific area operations: $219,116

Drew Aliperto, VP, Western area operations: $219,000

For fiscal 2013, incidentally, pay and bonuses for non-bargaining unit employees remained frozen, the report says, adding that this was the six straight year that compensation for executive officers was affected “by either a freeze in salary and/or a non-payment of performance lump sums.”

*Now holds a different position, is no longer with the Postal Service or was not in this position for the entire 2012 calendar year

**Includes annuity paid by the Office of Personnel Management

Is the administration moving to include transgender care in federal health insurance coverage?

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The short answer? Maybe.

Dive into the longer but far more satisfying answer below…

While some company and local government health plans cover care for transgender policy-holders, the Federal government does not and specifically excludes transition-related care from coverage.

Transition-related care may include hormone replacement therapy, mental health services, and sexual reassignment surgery (SRS).  The costs of this care can easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars, putting it beyond the reach of many who need it.

But some recent and almost unnoticeable steps by federal agencies could mean transgender care coverage federal employees and many others.

Many people believe the inner workings of the government are needlessly complex or hopelessly laborious. And in many cases they are.

So follow me into the workings of the government so I can show you.

On Dec. 2 the departmental appeals board at the Health and Human Services Department decided that the “National Coverage Determination” (basically what is covered under Medicare and Medicaid and other programs) excluding sexual reassignment surgery specifically from Medicare coverage needed to be revisited.

The coverage decision has been in place since May 6, 1981 and  the original determination stated:

“Transsexual surgery for sex reassignment of transsexuals is controversial. Because of the lack of well controlled, long term studies of the safety and effectiveness of the surgical procedures and attendant therapies for transsexualism, the treatment is considered experimental;. Moreover there is a high rate of serious complications for these surgical procedures. For these reasons, transsexual surgery is not covered.”

The complaint that sparked this action noted that the language was terribly out of date and had no real bearing on modern day medicine. It seems HHS is inclined to agree.

But what does this have to do with Federal employees?  In addition to administering Medicare, HHS is also responsible for enforcement of section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which covers “any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance, including credits, subsidies, or contracts of insurance, or under any program or activity that is administered by an Executive Agency or any entity established under this title [of the ACA].”

If you read that and thought the scope of the inquiry was extensive you are right. It covers a wide range of programs, including at least Medicare, Medicaid and the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

On an HHS Q and A on Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act – which prohibits discrimination on the bases of “race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in certain health programs and activities” the agency answered a list of self-imposed questions, including:

“Does this mean that transition related surgery is required to be covered by health insurers?”

The answer was a simple “no.”

But the Q and A has since vanished from the site. (Update: I want to make clear the Q and A I link to is a web archive version.)

At the same time the agency issued a request for information on the same section (1557) seekinginformation on a variety of issues to better understand individuals’ experiences with discrimination in health programs or activities and covered entities’ experiences in complying with Federal civil rights laws.”

The agency specifically requested examples of covered discrimination on the basis of sex, ‘including discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sex stereotyping, or pregnancy.”

While the rulemaking is far from complete these are signs the administration is open to changing how it treats its transgender employees.

This could be a huge step in getting transgender care covered under the health plans available to millions of people across the country.

I have reached out to the Office of Personnel Management and to HHS for comment. I will update if I hear anything.

Are you a federal employee without health insurance?

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For all the talk of gold-plated federal pay and benefits, the American Federation of Government Employees estimates that some 250,000 feds don’t enroll in the Federal Employees Health  Benefits Program (FEHBP) because they can’t afford the premiums.

If you fall in that category, Federal Times wants to get your view on whether the Affordable Care Act (widely known as “Obamacare”) will help provide coverage or not. To weigh in,  please call Staff Writer Sean Reilly at 703-750-8684 or email him at sreilly@federaltimes.com. Thanks very much!

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Today’s holiday just another furlough day for many feds

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Officially, today (i.e., Oct. 14, marking Columbus Day) remains on the books as a paid federal holiday. But because of the partial government shutdown, only a limited number of federal employees are scheduled to be paid for it.

Even employees deemed “excepted” (or as many feds put it, “essential”) during the shutdown must take today as an unpaid furlough day unless required to report to work, according to Office of Personnel Management instructions (check out pp. 12 and 13). As OPM puts it in a helpful question-and-answer format:

“Q: Will an ‘excepted’ employee who does not work on a holiday that occurs during a shutdown furlough be paid for the holiday?
A: No. An ‘excepted’ employee who does not work on a holiday will be placed in a furloughstatus for the holiday and will not receive pay for a holiday that occurs during a shutdown furlough unless authorized by subsequent legislation.”
How many people are working today is unclear, although the number is presumably pretty small. An OPM spokesman referred the question to the Office of Management and Budget’s press office, which (assuming it’s open) did not immediately reply to an email.
As Federal Times has previously reported, two bills to assure back pay to furloughed federal employees have unanimously passed the House; both are awaiting Senate action.

 

One man, two wives and an annuity

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Nearly a decade after he died, the complicated marital turnabouts of a U.S. Forest Service employee named Don King gave rise Friday to a ruling by the  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

First, some background. Try to follow along, it’s complicated.

In 1967, King married a woman named Diana. They divorced in 1980. They remarried in 1981. Then, they divorced again 18 months later. And yet they held themselves out to be married for years afterward, living in the same house, keeping joint accounts and even celebrating their (original) anniversary.

But in 2002, Don moved out. He married another woman, Kathryn. Before he died in 2004, Don designated Kathryn to receive his lump sum accrued annuity.

That’s when things got messy.

Both Kathryn and Diana claimed to be Don’s wife and, after  litigation, the pair struck a deal.

Diana agreed to pay Kathryn $50,000 to resolve Don’s medical and funeral expenses. And Kathryn agreed that if she got Don’s annuity payments, the money would belong to Diana.

Then, Kathryn changed her mind. And the matter ended up in court again.  Meanwhile, she applied to the Office of Personnel Management for survivor annuity funds. OPM made payments from 2004 to 2007.

But after a court ruled the settlement deal enforceable, Diana applied for survivor payments, too, prompting OPM to revoke Kathryn’s payments.

It hardly ends end there. Along came settlement No. 2, in which Kathryn released any claim to any payment Diana owed–including for Don’s expenses–while Diana waived “all claims to any future payment” that Kathryn might receive. Kathryn also turned over more than $40,000 that she received from OPM into a trust account for Diana.

Meanwhile, back at OPM, officials eventually found Diana was entitled survivor benefits. And then OPM went after Kathryn, seeking to recover the money she’d received. Kathryn didn’t deny she received the money, but argued she’d already transferred the money to Diana.

OPM didn’t back down. Once more, the matter ended up in litigation. Ultimately, Kathryn couldn’t receive a waiver from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

But, in a ruling one would cautiously assume to be the last word, the Court of Appeals for the Federal  Circuit Friday overturned the MSPB.

The court found, first of all, that Kathryn wasn’t at fault, as she was collecting benefits at a time when she thought she was entitled to them. It also ruled that she deserved a waiver, saying  she’d aimed all along to transfer Don’s retirement benefits back to Diana.

“Because the Board failed to address the substantial evidence demonstrating that recovery of the overpayment to Kathryn was against equity and good conscience, we reverse,” the court ruled.

Like the Don himself, the case is pretty complicated. So you read the ruling for yourself here.

IBM to integrate Air Force pay, personnel systems

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The Air Force on Monday awarded IBM an $11.8 million contract to integrate its military personnel and pay processes into one system.

As part of the Air Force Integrated Personnel and Pay System Program (AF-IPPS), IBM will design “an enterprise resource planning-based solution to meet all personnel and pay requirements,” according to a Defense Department announcement. Work is expected to be completed by December 2014.

The new personnel and pay system will replace the Military Personnel Data System (MilPDS) and the Defense Joint Military Pay System (DJMS) for the Air Force, according to a December 2012 Mitre report. The new system will play a key role in helping the Air Force meet its audit goals.

The system will serve about 507,000 service members and “thousands of military leaders of different ranks, specialties, and career fields,” according to the administration’s IT Dashboard, which tracks the status of large technology projects. The Air Force expects the system will reduce annual payroll errors by 75 percent, and allow airmen to be compensated in a timely manner at least 98.5 percent of the time.

The Mitre report also notes the new system will have a self-service capability for airmen to update personal information and access their pay records anytime. However, the system is expected to have more than 100 user interfaces and connections to external systems, which could create technical, cost and schedule challenges, the report said.

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Volume of MSPB furlough appeals still soaring

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For anyone who’s keeping count, the total number of appeals filed with the Merit Systems Protection Board for fiscal 2013 (as of close of business yesterday) stood at 34,210, or close to five times the agency’s normal yearly caseload. Of those, around 29,000 (or 85 percent), are furlough-related, Board Clerk Bill Spencer said in an email.

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TSP board to ask whether sequester and furloughs affecting participants’ investment choices

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The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board plans to ask Thrift Savings Plan participants whether the sequester and–in many cases, employee furloughs–has prompted them to change their investment choices.

The question will be added to the biannual survey going out to a sample of about 50,000 TSP account holders this fall, Renee Wilder, the board’s director of enterprise planning, said in a brief interview today. At the board’s monthly meeting, Wilder said that TSP participation among active Federal Employees Retirement System members dipped slightly in June to a 12-month low of 2.39 million, but it is unclear whether that decline stemmed from soft market conditions or the impact of sequester-related budget cuts. The overall FERS participation rate remained relatively stable last month at 86.8 percent.

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