- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

By and large, most federal workers, besides U.S. Postal Service employees, aren't union members: Whether that's because they oppose unions, don't see the need for them, don't understand them or are too cheap to pay the dues, they just don't join.

Union leaders, naturally, hope that will change.

The debate over the Department of Homeland Security should help their cause. The fight over "management rights" powers in the proposed DHS has given some federal union leaders a moment in the national spotlight.

Unions have billed themselves as the saviors of the civil service merit system, which was set up, in large part, to make it tougher for political bosses to arm-twist employees.

The Bush administration has done less well in the public relations war. It argues that the powers it seeks that would let the president exempt feds involved in national security work from union coverage (and protections) have been given to every president since Jimmy Carter.

Whether the DHS takes off, or dies on the congressional launching pad, federal unions have been given a million dollars worth of publicity.

Meanwhile, for most feds, who will not work for the DHS and who do not belong to unions, the battle between congressional Democrats and the White House has just delayed action on all federal appropriations bills.

For the first time in history, the entire U.S. government is running on a stopgap CR (continuing resolution). Meanwhile, half a dozen bills that would permit feds to make catch-up contributions to their 401(k) plan, allow them to keep more of their Social Security benefits, permit retirees to pay health premiums with pretax dollars are stymied.

Health premiums

They are going up an "average" of 11.1 percent next year for feds in the big-six plans of the federal health program.

Meanwhile, retirees are looking at a cost of living adjustment of about 1.1 percent in January, while white-collar feds can expect depending on what Congress does, or does not do anywhere from 2.6 percent (the original White House proposal) to 3.1 percent (the amount due based on pay changes in the private sector, or 4.1 percent the amount favored by Congress. The latter amount which was the front-runner is now in doubt.

Language authorizing the raise (which would be same as military personnel will get) is contained in both the House and Senate versions of the Treasury-Postal Service appropriation. But like a dozen other money bills to fund agencies in this new fiscal year (it started Oct. 1) the Treasury-Postal package hasn't been approved.

The Senate needs to clear its version and then send it to a conference with the House. If that doesn't happen, then the 4.1 percent raise will disappear and a lesser amount will take effect.

Many lower-paid feds, and most retirees, will find that the 2003 pay raise will barely cover their higher health plan costs. It could force many of them to shop around during the November-December open season for less costly coverage.

Long-term-care premiums

A growing number of companies are eyeing the federal-military market. They hope to persuade the cream of the crop (younger, healthier individuals) to sign up for individual plans with them, rather than the group rate program being offered by the government.

In many instances, younger, healthy workers and military personnel can get comparable coverage and pay lower premiums by purchasing an outside, individual plan.

Meanwhile, many feds and retirees wonder when or if the government will let them pay premiums on a pretax basis (like working feds can now do with health insurance premiums). It would make sense, since LTC shifts many of the costs of services from the taxpayers to insurance companies.

But the flip side is that the so-called premium-conversion feature cuts into federal tax revenue, and also premiums must be paid via payroll deduction.

Bottom line: Its a perk that is very attractive but it isn't likely to happen anytime soon.

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