- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

Suppose your spouse brought home a leaner, fitter version of you and asked that you train your lovely replacement before you moved out.

Uncle Sam wants to do just that — on a grander scale — in the drive to privatize up to 400,000 federal jobs.

Internal Revenue Service tax collectors would be asked to train private bill collectors who would then get a portion of whatever they brought home. National Park Service workers would be asked to show theme park personnel where such sites as Old Faithful and Mammoth Cave are, so that they could replace the feds.

And private sector types, after receiving (one hopes) top government training, would be told to report to a control tower so that they could start directing aerial traffic.

The Bush administration is doing nearly all it can to make a case that anything that the feds are doing — that also is being duplicated in the private sector — should be considered for outsourcing.

A National Institutes of Health employee said all federal jobs would have to pass the Yellow Pages litmus test. That is, if your job (computer specialist, lawyer, accountant, etc.) is listed in the services section of that good book, it should be put on the things-to-be-farmed-out list.

As a result, opponents of privatization (mostly congressional Democrats and federal unions) are using a variety of tactics to block, or delay, privatization.

The National Treasury Employees Union warns that hiring private, work-on-commission tax collectors would be worse than the IRS at its worst.

Opponents of a plan to privatize some National Park Service jobs are playing the diversity card. They say that because Uncle Sam is the largest employer of minorities, turning over jobs to the private sector could hurt minorities the most.

The situation would be just another Washington political food fight, except that in this case hundreds of thousands of jobs — many in this area — and vested pension rights are very much on the line. Check the Yellow Pages to see whether you are entering a danger zone.

Flexible-spending accounts

They are still available, and the plan is that they will go into effect (if your agency is ready) July 1. But the problem is that as of last week — when the FSA open season was to end — nobody had signed up. Because they couldn’t.

Some agencies said they couldn’t make the July 1 starting date. And everybody was on hold while the government decided whether employees, or Uncle Sam, would pay the $48 and $75 administrative fees for the medical and dependent-care FSAs.

To give feds time to sign up, the government extended the deadline through June 27. Even with the late start you can (if you can afford it) put up to $3,000 in a medical FSA and up to $5,000 in a dependent-care FSA.

But check to see when your agency will sign on. Some will wait until September; others won’t be ready until 2004.

Postal early retirements

The new “reshaping” buyout regulations published last week will make it much easier for all federal agencies — including the U.S. Postal Service — to offer early retirement to employees.

USPS promised members of the American Postal Workers Union that it would seek early-out permission and offer retirement at age 50 with 20 years of service, or at any age with 25 years of service.

The problem has been that under traditional early-out rules, USPS can’t qualify because employees can’t be laid off, downgraded or transferred. For a normal early out, workers must be under threat of layoff or downgrading.

But the new so-called Shaping VERAs, voluntary early retirement authority, make early outs possible even if agencies aren’t facing a massive layoff or other job disruptions.

The purpose of the VERAs is to allow agencies to address “skills imbalances.” Thanks to the popularity of e-mail, USPS has too many of the wrong kind of employees in the wrong places.

The new regulations were published Friday in the Federal Register.

• Mike Causey, senior editor at FederalNewsRadio.com, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey@federalnewsradio.com.

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