Whistleblower protections, higher VSIPs and other bills worth watching this week

This story has been updated Wednesday, Oct. 4 to reflect the Senate’s committee vote on the following bills. 

Several federal workforce bills will make their way to the Senate floor, after the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed 14 pieces of new legislation at a Wednesday morning markup.

Most notably, higher early out offers are one small step closer to becoming reality.

The committee passed a bill from Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) that would increase the maximum Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment (VSIP) from the current $25,000 to $40,000.

The $40,000 figure would be adjusted for inflation every year and tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Congress hasn’t boosted VSIP offers since 2002, when lawmakers first authorized those incentives. Some agencies are considering or have already used VERA/VSIP offers as a way to reduce the size of their workforces through attrition.

The VSIP Adjustment Act isn’t the only new bill worth watching in the following weeks. The Senate committee pushed forward several other pieces of legislation Wednesday, which could have impact agency whistleblower programs and hiring flexibilities.

Direct hire authorities and term appointments

As the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management, Lankford has been leading a series of “listening sessions” with agency leaders and federal organizations on the challenges facing the civil service.

In addition to his VSIP bill, the committee passed two others from Lankford — likely inspired by those listening sessions.

“This is an area that has specifically been requested by multiple agencies,” he said. “They’re trying to hire people straight of college, but as those individuals go into the workforce, they apply five different places. The private sector responds extremely quickly. Three months later, the government sector gets back to them, [and] they’re already hired. With a retiring workforce, it’s extremely important that we actually get that done.”

The Direct Hire of Students and Recent Graduates Act would give agency leaders the authority to directly hire recent college and post-secondary students to certain professional or administrative jobs at the GS-11 level or below.

Agencies must continue to publicly advertise these positions, and they’d have some limitations as to the number of students they can hire under this authority. But the legislation ultimately gives the OPM director the discretion to develop more specific guidelines on how agencies should use the direct-hire flexibility.

The bill also requires agencies to detail the number of students they hire under this authority and make note of individuals who are veterans or minorities.

The second bill would let agencies quickly make term or temporary appointments to fill a critical hiring need.

The Term and Temporary Appointments Act gives the OPM director the discretion to determine what hiring needs are “critical” and how agencies can fill them. Ultimately, the legislation lets agencies skip the extensive hiring process to bring on employees for temporary appointments of less than a year or for term appointments between one to five years.

Whistleblower protections

A handful of senators want agency whistleblower ombudsmen to have a greater role in supporting their agencies’ programs.

Under the current law, agencies are required to designate one official to focus on whistleblower protection issues. The Whistleblower Protection Coordination Act would change the name of these officials from “ombudsmen” to “whistleblower protection coordinators.”

These officials would serve permanently in agency inspector general offices, and they would be responsible for helping the IG communicate with Congress, the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board as agencies investigate whistleblower disclosures and reprisal cases.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Ranking Member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), along with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), introduced the bill.

“It’s not always easy to figure out how to disclose waste, fraud or abuse in government when there are so many different rules governing different agencies,” Grassley said in a statement. “Empowering these inspector general officials across the federal government will give whistleblowers a clear, confidential resource to make sure they are informed and equipped to lawfully carry out their patriotic duty to shine a light on inefficiencies or misconduct in government.”

Senators hope that with a bigger role in their agencies’ IG offices, whistleblower protection coordinators can help move investigations along more quickly and efficiently.

Specifically, whistleblower protection coordinators would work with Office of Special Counsel to write new best practices for handling and communicating protected disclosures and allegations of whistleblower retaliation, the legislation said.

Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), co-chair of the House Whistleblower Caucus, is planning to introduce a companion bill.

CBP hiring

The committee also passed the Customs and Border Protection Hiring and Retention (or Hire) Act of 2017.

The bill gives CBP direct hiring authority for candidates to fill certain positions, especially jobs are difficult to fill or are in rural or remote locations.

The legislation also lets CBP hand out recruitment, relocation or retention bonuses to certain job candidates or current agency employees, and it lets OPM set special pay authorities if the other incentives aren’t enough to attract top talent.

Another provision in the bill would allow CBP to give employees commuting allowances in special circumstances. The legislation also puts more limitations on CBP’s use of the polygraph exam. They can administer and use the results of a candidate’s polygraph exam in making a hiring decision, but the results don’t have to be the only determining factor.

CBP has struggled in the past to quickly hire border patrol agents, particularly in remote locations along the southern or northern U.S. borders. After condensing its 12-step hiring process into more measurable segments, the agency’s time-to-hire went from more than 400 days to about 170 days.

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