- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

If you, a friend or relative has a staggering student loan, here is a tip: Get a government job.

Helping new hires and old hands repay a portion of their student loans is one of little-known but increasingly used tools Uncle Sam is using for recruiting and retention.

In fiscal 2006, at least 34 federal agencies gave about $36 million to 5,755 workers to help them pay off college debts. That may not sound like a lot of people, but it is probably 5,755 more than most private-sector firms gave their employees.

That $36 million figure is probably understated because it may not include some of the intelligence agencies that have offered the perk for years.

Who gets loan-repayment help and how much they receive is up to each agency. There are legal caps on how much help Uncle Sam can give, but every little bit helps. The Office of Personnel Management said the average loan-repayment benefit last year was a little more than $6,200. Director Linda Springer said the amount of the loan repayments and the number of agencies helping employees is up 28 percent and 31 percent respectively.

Are you special?

In addition to student loan assistance, federal agencies have been nudged to use existing authority to give substantially higher than normal salaries to people with special job skills.

Agencies have rarely used their long-held authority to give more money to so-called “rare birds.” Now, GovExec.com reports that the government is encouraging agencies to use it.

The Office of Personnel Management, working with the Office of Management and Budget, will act on agency requests for the pay authority. The top salary for a career GS15 in the Washington area ranges from $110,363 to start to $143,471 for someone in the top longevity step of that grade. Using the new authority, someone coming in at that level could be paid up to $168,000.

The authority would be especially helpful in cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and a dozen others places where feds, thanks to locality pay, get more money. But even in those top-paying cities the upper limit for GS15 is capped at $145,400.

Encore performance

The government is seeking legislation from Congress that would permit it to offer part-time work, along with more money, to both current and former employees.

Under current rules, so-called “re-employed annuitants” take a hit when they come back into government. In most cases — except those involving national defense and intelligence waivers — their salaries are offset by their pensions.

Under the new proposal, they could keep their federal annuity and get the full salary for the federal position they took.

“It’s been called double-dipping” a retired official said, “but it really isn’t. We don’t offset the pension of somebody who retires from Sears, or The Washington Times, if they come into government.”

Part two of the proposal would be to let current employees work fewer hours without any penalty in their final pension. Federal retirement benefits are based on the employee’s age, length of service and highest average three-year salary. That usually is the last three years of service.

Allowing workers to stay on as part-timers without downsizing their final retirement checks might persuade people with special skills not to join the feared brain drain.

• Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey @federalnewsradio.com.

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