- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

It could be a greener-than-expected Christmas for thousands of current and former Washington-area feds who are about to receive back paychecks worth several hundred dollars to as much as $10,000.

The money is part of a long-running back-pay dispute between Uncle Sam and more than 200,000 government scientists, engineers, medical personnel worldwide, and about 30,000 GS 2 through 7 clerical employees in the Washington area. Although their jobs and pay scales were very different, the surprised civil servants have one thing in common:

They worked for the federal government in what is known as special-rate jobs between 1982 and 1988, and they were denied some or all of the regular January civil service raises that went to feds who weren’t paid special (higher) rates because of their jobs. The government “saved” millions during the six-year period by not giving the special-raters (some of whom made 30 percent more than other employees in different jobs, but in the same grades) the regular civil service raises. But now Uncle Sam must pay back those savings, with interest.

A long-running lawsuit, initiated by the “mission impossible” legal team of the National Treasury Employees Union beat the government, and forced it into a settlement that will eventually mean $178 in back pay to nearly 200,000 1980s-era special-raters. The first installment, a batch of checks worth $81 million, went out last week. If you are going to get one, you should have it now.

The government says it will repay the rest of the money over the next couple of years. The funds have been set aside in a special account where politicians can’t touch them. For information on the case, go to www.SpecialRatesSettlement.com.

If you are getting money back, but don’t like unions or see the need for them, you might at least consider sending the NTEU a Christmas card. Some of the checks, when the final installments are paid, will be worth up to $40,000.

Bonus holiday

President Bush has given many feds a bonus day off on Dec. 26. But the day after Christmas won’t be a holiday for thousands of feds in essential jobs and for tens of thousands of government contractors.

The latter have been told they can take the day off, but it will be charged to their vacations.

Meanwhile, if you are a regular Monday through Friday fed, the drill is easy enough: Just don’t come to work on the 26th. Period.

But woe unto those who are on odd shifts, flexible or compressed schedules or who work overseas (where Uncle Sam has tens of thousands of federal civil servants). Figuring out the complex bonus-holiday rules is easier said than done. For guidance, check out the Office of Personnel Management’s Web site at www.opm.gov.

Health premiums

Federal workers can use the so-called “premium conversion” option to save on taxes. It allows them to pay health premiums with pretax dollars, and gives them an annual tax saving of anywhere from $250 to $500. But they lose that option when they retire, and their income drops.

The congressional drive to get premium conversion for federal retirees (and maybe all retirees) fizzled this year. It ran out of time and ran into a major fact of life. Allowing retirees to pay premiums on a pretax basis could have cut into the government’s already dwindling tax revenues.

Premium conversion for retirees will be back on the congressional wish list next year, but it isn’t going to happen unless and until the economy picks up, and Congress begins to view it as a way to help seniors buy better health insurance or at least save money on the plans they purchase.

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

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