Slim pickings on big federal workforce changes in 2021 legislation

As Congress debates must-pass legislation for 2021, members are leaving many of the big-ticket federal workforce items on the table this year.

Federal employees looking for a major legislative breakthrough this year will be disappointed.

The two main legislative vehicles of the year — the annual spending bills and the defense authorization act — are relatively light on federal employee provisions or big changes, though there are few worth keeping an eye out on.

The House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the annual defense policy bill. The House version, most notably, corrects a few mistakes Congress made last year when it quickly ran the federal paid parental leave program to the finish line. Last year’s bill left out a few key constituencies, including employees at the Federal Aviation Administration, some employees at the Veterans Health Administration and non-screeners at the Transportation Security Administration.

Corrections for paid parental leave are bound to make it through, as both parties have expressed interest one way or another.

As we’ve described, the House defense policy bill also includes a few new safeguards for federal employees and an amendment that allow certain workers to carry over annual leave they’d otherwise have to forfeit at the end of the calendar year.

The amendment is intended for employees working directly on the government’s pandemic response, not the Marine Mammal Commission employee working from home and skipping out on summer travel plans this year.

Earlier this year, we questioned whether Congress would take on any big federal workforce modernization efforts — with recommendations from good government groups, chartered commissions and others in no short supply.

The answer appears to be no.

Congress is acting on a few of the recommendations the Cyber Solarium and the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence made earlier this year. But lawmakers have stayed quiet on many of the big federal workforce suggestions the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service made this spring.

The commission was adamant Congress needed to approach civil service modernization with at least some sense of urgency.

But an overhaul to federal hiring, veterans preference or federal benefits isn’t in the cards for 2021, not with everything going on.

Instead, we’re left with tidbits.

House lawmakers, for example, want reports from the administration on skills gaps in the federal IT workforce and possible improvements to the hiring process. They want the Office of Personnel Management to report on agency telework preparedness ahead of the current pandemic.

Members are also calling on the Government Accountability Office to do a top-to-bottom review of the federal locality system. They’re also interested in having OPM speed up the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and make it compatible with mobile devices.

“Currently, the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey is administered to employees each spring; however, since agencies do not receive their survey data from OPM until the fall, leaders are not able to respond or react quickly to employee feedback,” House appropriators said in a report on their 2021 spending bill. This can contribute to further dissatisfaction among employees who feel that little is being done by leaders to respond to the results of the survey.”

Federal employee unions may see a provision in one of the House spending bills as a win. The measure is designed to prevent agencies from denying unions office space inside federal facilities. It also ensures labor representatives can use official time for union activities.

The House included a similar measure in last year’s spending bill draft, but it never became law. Unions will keep their fingers crossed that will change this year, but if it doesn’t, there’s always the election.

But it’s difficult to look at any these provisions and agree Congress took the words from its own chartered commission seriously. The Senate has devoted even less attention to federal workforce changes in recent legislation.

There is, of course, still time for something to sneak in to one of the two major legislative packages of the year. Paid parental leave, after all, was a late addition in last year’s defense authorization bill. But for anyone looking for even small tweaks to federal hiring, better luck next year.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Brian Bradley

Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice had a pet snake named Emily Spinach. She liked to carry it around the White House in her purse and take it out at unexpected moments.


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