- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

So how much money and vacation time does the American-equivalent of James Bond get? Of course if I told you, then I’d have to kill you. But it is probably safe to discuss generalities and use round numbers.

In terms of dollars, senior secret agents earn anywhere from about $115,000 to $177,000. Given what they do, where they do it and the long, often dangerous hours they put in, that isn’t very much money. The typical American doesn’t have the brain, muscle or will to make it through the CIA’s training facility, sometimes called the Farm, near Williamsburg.

Other than the top secret nature of their work, employees of the CIA, the Secret Service, Defense Intelligence Agency, Senior Cryptologic Executive Service and a dozen other outfits, live pretty much by standard civil service rules. Most get annual (not very big) pay raises, and sometimes (not very big) bonuses.

Although some have special retirement deals, most are under the same age and length of service rules that cover regular federal workers, or law enforcement personnel in other agencies.

Members of the various top-secret services are in the same health plans as other federal workers and retirees, and have the same investment options in the Thrift Savings Plan. The TSP is the government equivalent of the best 401(k) plans available in the private sector.

The benefits counseling that people in the silent services get is usually much better than that available to rank-and-file feds in other agencies. That’s because the CIA, FBI, DEA and DIA, among others, want to be sure their people are happy, make the best use of their benefits and aren’t overly distracted by things that worry workers in and outside of government.

Agencies with overseas stations and employees often go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that their people are kept current about job-related benefits, ranging from life insurance to the annual open seasons when feds can change health plans or set up pretax accounts to help pay for uncovered medical expenses or day care for a child or dependent relative.

“At the end of the day,” one senior benefits expert told us, “these people are just like everybody else in and out of government. They have good marriages and bad one’s, they have kids who are outstanding or who have problems, and they worry about paying bills and what’s going to happen to them in retirement.”

Senior members of various agencies got a break last week, when the Office of Personnel Management extended a major recruiting perk to them. Under current rules members of the Senior Executive Service earn eight hours of annual leave every two weeks. That benefit generally isn’t available to non-SES people who don’t earn that much annual leave until they have been in federal service for 15 years.

Last week OPM issued a memo to officials in 22 agencies — from the State Department and the CIA to the Farm Credit Administration — telling them they can now use the higher-annual-leave accumulation benefit as a recruiting and retention tool. In other words, they can tell a new employee that he or she will qualify for the higher vacation accrual benefit from Day One.

Current employees in equivalent systems to the SES in their agencies will also qualify to earn annual leave at the more generous rate even if they don’t have 15 years of service. While this will be an excellent recruiting and retention benefit for those agencies, it raises another question. Will people who have just been added to the vacation fast-track now be able to carry over more unused annual leave from year to year? Regular SES personnel can accumulate up to 700 hours of annual leave and cash it in at retirement.

Most feds, however, are limited to carrying over about 240 hours of leave from year to year. While that’s still a sizable chunk of change in their final lump-sum leave check, the ability to save up more would be an added incentive.

Part-time employment

When they get close to retirement age, many federal and postal workers would like to phase out by working part time for a couple of years. But complex retirement rules now on the books discourage it because going part time late in your work life can reduce, sometimes drastically, your federal annuity. But relief may be on the way.

One of several fed-friendly provisions in the so-called Tobacco bill (H.R. 1804) would remove that obstacle to part-time employment. Backers of the change say it would benefit both old-timers who could work less (and sometimes from home) and newcomers who would have been-there-done-that-mentors on hand.

The legislation sailed through the House and President Obama has indicated that he is prepared to sign it. The Bush administration opposed the overall bill last year because it would give the FDA more power to regulate tobacco — a major cash crop in a dozen states. The bill bogged down in the Senate last year for that reason.

The Senate will take it up shortly after it returns next week from its extended Easter-Passover break.

• Mike Causey can be reached at mcausey@federalnewsradio.com.

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