- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is there something called the FERS Flu, which strikes civil servants and costs Uncle Sam $68 million a year?

Actually, it’s not a real virus. But it has hit flu researchers at the FBI agents, government scientists and federal information-technology specialists.

Government studies indicate that in their last year before retirement, many employees under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) system suddenly find themselves in failing health. They seem to get more colds, more headaches that require them to miss work. On sick leave. While it could be a feature of aging, many suspect that employees in their last year or two of service start burning up their sick leave.

The most recent study said that the government loses an estimated $68 million a year in paying sick leave to feds who may not be all that sick.

FERS, unlike the more generous (in some ways) Civil Service Retirement System that it replaced in the mid-1980s, doesn’t allow employees preparing for retirement to credit unused sick leave toward their service time, which translates into a bigger pension and provides an incentive to use sick leave sparingly.

To the extent that employees are misusing sick leave, Congress is working on a proposal that would give FERS employees the same sick-leave credit benefit enjoyed by old-timers under the CSRS program. That is, they could apply unused sick-leave time to their service time. Federal annuities are calculated based on the employee’s highest 3-year average salary and length of service. Obviously, the more money one makes, and the longer one works, the bigger the lifetime civil service benefit, which is indexed to inflation.

Some people believe the FERS employees - who make up about two-thirds of the current federal work force - deserve the same sick-leave credit as older employees under the CSRS system. Others believe the government - rather than paying them not to use sick leave should do a better job of monitoring whether there is abuse.

Congress apparently thinks it would be smart - and fair - to give FERS employees the perk. And that it would save money in the long run.

Earlier this year, the House passed HR 1108. Although the legislation deals with giving the Food and Drug Administration more oversight with tobacco products, it contains a legislative “rider” that would extend the sick-leave-credit benefit to FERS employees.

Lobbyists familiar with the plan say the bill has enough votes in the Senate to pass. But the White House has signaled that the tobacco bill might be vetoed. The thinking is that with its short schedule before adjournment, the Senate may not take up the proposal.

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