- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

Despite opposition from the White House, Congress is working on a repellent for the flu bug that routinely bites thousands of longtime civil servants — costing the taxpayers $69 million each year.

The affliction — known unofficially as the FERS flu — almost exclusively hits workers who are under the Federal Employees Retirement System. It usually lays them up for a day or two at a time, often several times each month in their final year of service.

Cynics, who abound in Washington, say FERS employees, who are under a use-it-or-lose-it sick-leave system, are simply burning up thousands of hours of sick leave they’ve accumulated over their careers. FERS covers about 80 percent of the government’s work force. Government studies have confirmed that it is real and does happen — for whatever reason — and that the loss in productivity costs a bundle.

Managers have complained of scheduling problems and gaps in work flow when formerly hale and hearty workers start calling in sick without advance warning. In most cases workers are not required to document sick leave — with a note from the doctor — unless they take three or more days in a row.

Tucked away in the House version of the defense authorization bill is language that would extend to FERS employees the same incentive to save sick leave available to a minority of workers under the old Civil Service Retirement System. When they are otherwise eligible to retire — having the requisite amount of service time and age — CSRS employees can add their unused sick leave to their service time.

A year’s worth of sick leave (about 2,080 hours) will boost their starting, inflation-indexed federal retirement benefit by 2 percent. Some longtime CSRS employees have two or more years of sick leave accrued, which they accumulate at the rate of 13 days per year. By contrast, many nonfederal workers (especially in small firms) either don’t get sick leave or, if they do, cannot accumulate it.

Giving FERS employees an incentive to save sick leave would, backers say, be both fair and smart. They say Congress did it years ago for CSRS employees to keep them from burning up sick leave and that it would mean immediate savings in productivity.

Opponents say this is not the time to beef up benefits for federal workers and that down the road, the price of higher annuities is too costly. FERS benefits are based on a less generous formula than the CSRS system, so each year of sick-leave credit would boost their annuity by about 1 percent.

The Obama administration in June opposed a similar FERS flu cure that was in a House version of the much broader tobacco bill. Among other things, it gives the FDA greater regulatory power over tobacco products. It was a must-pass-fast piece of legislation that caused the House to take the unusual step of agreeing to whatever the Senate approved without going to a conference. The Senate version didn’t include the FERS flu cure, which is now back as part of the must-pass Defense money bill.

Federal unions — all of whom supported Mr. Obama in the election campaign — are quietly seething over several White House actions that include the decision to give white-collar federal workers a 2 percent raise (the unions want at least 2.9 percent) and the decision to overhaul rather than eliminate the controversial National Security Personnel System. NSPS covers more than 100,000 Defense civilians, placing them in pay bands (rather than grades) and basing salaries on performance.

The unions hoped and expected that NSPS, introduced by the George W. Bush administration, would be halted. Instead, the administration says it plans to refine it to make it more transparent and to involve unions so that employees will feel that the pay decisions are truly based on merit rather than favoritism, politics or proximity to headquarters operations. Many contend that the farther feds are from Washington, or their central command, the lower their regular merit pay raises. Defense says that is nonsense.

The administration’s decision not to support the FERS flu cure has also angered the unions. But union lobbyists think that if House conferees hang tough and insist on keeping the cure in the bill, the president will sign it.

Mike Causey’s Federal Report runs Mondays. Contact him at [email protected] or 202/895-5132.

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