Exclusive

Transit benefits snarled by mixed messages from agencies

An increase to federal commuter benefits is taking effect this year, but according to an exclusive Federal News Radio survey, agencies are having some problems getting that news to employees.

About 400 federal workers responded to the survey, which was prompted after Federal News Radio received several emails from government employees wondering about when and if the transit benefit increase would start.

Included in the 2016 omnibus spending bill legislation was an increase for the monthly transit benefit. Congress agreed on a tax-extenders measure to establish permanent parity between the parking and transit benefits. Both benefits would be capped at $255 a month instead of the current transit benefit of $130 a month and parking benefit of $250 a month.

The Department of Transportation said in an email to Federal News Radio earlier this month that the increase is based “on policy and budgetary considerations.”

The parity is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015 at $250 a month. At the time of the spending bill’s passage, the National Treasury Employees Union said some employees could a see a one-time payment of more than $1,400 to cover last year.

But in an emailed statement to Federal News Radio, NTEU National President Tony Reardon said that whether or not employees will get this increase depends on their collective bargaining agreements

“Prospectively, this should be applicable to all federal agencies unless they have some contract language that limits the transit benefit they are eligible to receive,” Reardon said. “At the [Internal Revenue Service], for example, the benefit became effective on March 1 since the IRS agreement gives the agency 60 days to implement the change. The legislation granting transit benefits parity with the parking benefit is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015. Whether or not employees are entitled to retroactive benefits for 2015 under the legislation also depends specifically on the language in their contract, which differs by agency.”

‘Very confusing’

The application of benefits isn’t the only thing that differs by agency. Survey respondents from a range of federal agencies — the IRS, Veterans Affairs Department and the Library of Congress to name a few — shared examples of mixed messages from their offices about the increases.

Two-thirds of survey takers said their agency had informed them about the transit benefits. Half of those respondents learned about the benefits within the past few months, while roughly 15 percent said they only found out within the last few weeks.

More than 90 percent of employees were told the amount of the increase, while agencies also tended to share when the transit benefits take effect.

Who can apply for the benefits as well as where to apply were also shared throughout agencies. Information about who to contact if there is a problem, however, was not always shared with employees.

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Among the responses given in the survey, an Education Department employee said the process was “very confusing.”

“You hear one thing on the news, but then our agency tells you they don’t have the funds to actually pay anyone the benefit,” they said. “Parking benefits are just as backwards. We are told it’s based on many factors including mileage from the office being one of the biggest factors yet people who don’t carpool/vanpool/ride share and live inside the Beltway get parking before others outside the Beltway.”

A Department of Agriculture worker said their agency “basically sent us an email and told us that there was an increase in the benefit and you can go online now and apply. Metro has gotten so expensive now, it’s almost cheaper to drive into work. Although they give the benefits you must still pay to park which is approximately $25 a week. The benefits run out quite quickly.”

A State Department employee forwarded a memo from their department’s human resources office sent Jan. 5.

“Congress passed a bill increasing transit subsidy benefits to $255,” the State memo said. “However, the increase is not mandatory and any increase in reimbursement will be decided by each agency.  Guidance will be provided via a Department Notice once the Department makes a determination on how to proceed with this change in subsidy allotment.”

An Environmental Protection Agency worker sent this message from the EPA’s Transit Subsidy Coordinator from Jan. 12: Effective February 1, 2016, EPA HQ Employees will receive their actual commuting costs up to the new maximum benefit amount of $255.00 per month. This increase will be automatic and based on the total commuting costs of your most recent Transit Subsidy recertification form. Employees that use Commuter Direct (MARC, VRE, MTA Commuter Bus and AMTRAK), National Coach Works/Martz Bus of VA, and van pools will receive an additional email with steps required by the employee to increase the Transit Subsidy benefit amount transferred to their transit providers.

One Navy employee said the only communication to their office has been from the Defense Department’s Washington Headquarters Services and not the Navy.

“The emails were very specific regarding how to update your online forms to get the higher benefit.  I did have to contact them by phone as the online program wouldn’t let me change the dollar amount so they did it for me. I also called to verify how my SMARTCARD would get money as I use both MARC and Metro,” the worker said. “What I am clueless about is how I am supposed to get retroactive benefits back to Jan 2015.  Absolutely no information out there!”

‘The past is the past’

Roughly 75 percent of respondents said they were aware of the increase to transit benefits. Around 70 percent of respondents said they did not have problems applying for the transit benefits, and of those who did run into hurdles, most said the problems were a lack of agency guidance or a delay in retroactive application of benefits for 2015.

 

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A Coast Guard worker said nothing has been said about the retroactive benefits.

“I wish they (or someone) would let us know if we can be reimbursed for 2015,” the Coast Guard employee said. “Public transportation is expensive.”

Another State Department employee said they’ve asked twice about receiving more than the $130.

“I have asked if an updated request was necessary and was informed that that was not required. I am also understanding that any amount will not reflect the months that were missed up to this point — it will not be made retroactive,” the State worker said.

Even within the same agency, employees were not on the same page regarding benefits.

One IRS employee said they used a ticketing system within the agency to update their current transit subsidy data.

“I would estimate it only took a couple days for me to hear back that my request had been processed. And what I did was wait to see that my balance had increased appropriately on my Transit debit card before I deleted the email response saying it had been processed,” they said. “I would also like to say that I recall seeing additional information regarding the transit increase. We also have an internal website for employees — IRWeb — and I am fairly certain the information was posted there for quite a while for folks to act upon. The other thing is the managers were provided talking points to use in their periodic meetings with employees, and my manager also reminded us all during one of our gatherings to please check into the increase if appropriate.”

But another IRS employee said they had only seen one email go out about the increase in transit benefits.

“I’ve never heard anything from them about how or if we’ll get anything for the past where we had unreimbursed expenses,” the IRS worker said. “I’ve just assumed that the past is the past and we’ll never get that money back.  With a severe lack of funding for anything, I figure it’s highly unlikely they’ll dedicate money for this.”

According to DOT, employees should look at their Agency Transit Benefit Program Policy or contact their program coordinator if they have additional questions.

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