VA opts into Special Salary Rate for IT workforce, regardless of unclear governmentwide rollout

The Department of Veterans Affairs is rolling out a new pay model for its IT and cybersecurity employees later this year — whether or not a governmentwide eff...

The Department of Veterans Affairs is rolling out a new pay model for its IT and cybersecurity employees later this year — whether or not a governmentwide effort to increase tech workers’ salaries moves forward.

VA expects the Special Salary Rate will significantly raise the salaries of more than 7,000 of its personnel nationwide. If adopted by all agencies, the SSR would increase the pay for about 100,000 federal IT and cyber employees governmentwide.

But the viability of a new governmentwide pay model for all federal IT and cybersecurity employees is uncertain, as agencies brace for possible cuts to discretionary, nondefense spending as part of ongoing debt-ceiling negotiations.

The Office of Personnel Management approved the SSR in January 2023, which would cover federal employees working in 2210 IT management, 0854 computer engineering, and 1550 computer science classified positions.

OPM circulated proposed special rate tables for covered positions with federal councils. But since the release of those proposed pay tables, it remains unclear how — and if — agencies plan to support higher salaries for tech employees.

The Agriculture Department is telling its workforce it currently doesn’t have the funding it needs to implement the SSR, and is weighing its options before making a final decision on whether or not to adopt the special rate.

More broadly, agencies don’t expect a Republican-controlled House to pass a fiscal 2024 spending package that would allow them to support a substantial pay boost for federal IT employees.

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders insisting on limits to federal spending have yet to reach a deal with the Biden administration to raise the debt ceiling.

The Treasury Department warns that the federal government may default on its debts as soon as June 1.

Given an uncertain budget environment, multiple sources tell Federal News Network that OPM has placed the SSR on hold, pending additional implementation guidance.

OPM Press Secretary Viet Tran said the agency hasn’t “yet made a decision on an implementation date” for the SSR.

VA: ‘We’ve made room’ in budget to implement SSR

With plans for a governmentwide SSR rollout unclear, VA’s Office of Information and Technology plans to implement the proposed SSR rates later this year — with or without OPM actually proceeding with the interagency pay system.

VA OIT spokeswoman Julia Telford told Federal News Network that “if no movement occurs with the OPM SSR,” it will coordinate with the agency’s Human Resources and Administration/Operations, Security and Preparedness (HRA/OSP) and Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) to implement the SSR, as proposed by OPM, within the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023.

Telford added that the VA would implement the proposed SSR using its new authority to establish special rates under the PACT Act.

The PACT Act, signed into law last summer, expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service. But the legislation also gives the VA new workforce recruitment and retention authorities.

VA Chief Information Officer Kurt DelBene told Federal News Network that the department is making higher IT workforce pay a top priority for its budget.

“We need to make sure that we have a good deal for people who join OIT and join the VA in the tech space, and so we’re looking at things like what do we pay folks,” DelBene said. “I’ll tell you, it’s challenging. We had to do the calculation to figure out what we’re going to stop doing to be able to implement this Special Salary Rate. But to me, it is so important that we had to do that calculation, and we’ve made room for it in the budget.”

As part of budget negotiations, DelBene said VA provided Congress and the Office of Management and Budget with its list of unfunded requirements.

“That basically says where we cut the line in our prioritization — let us tell you what’s below the line. And it’s some really hard stuff, and stuff we need to get done,” DelBene said. “But again, to that transparency of our dialogue with Congress and dialogue with OMB, we need to have that kind of clarity, if we’re going to get the additional funding and what are scarce dollars, even at the federal level.”

The VA led a coalition of agencies last year asking OPM to roll out a new SSR for cyber and IT hires across the federal workforce. That coalition of agencies includes the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department and the Energy Department.

Former Federal Salary Council Chairman Ron Sanders, a longtime expert on federal workforce and cybersecurity issues across government, said OPM goes to great lengths to achieve a consensus amongst all agencies when developing an SSR.

But agencies seldom agree on which positions require premium wages, or how much additional pay agencies could support under a proposed SSR.

“The client agencies are going to come to that table with as many different opinions as there are agencies. And reaching a consensus so that, when you do issue a Special Salary Rate, everybody is on board with it, that’s not an easy thing. It’s a real migraine,” Sanders said.

When agencies do agree on an SSR, federal managers rely on a few budget gimmicks to support the increased cost.

Sanders said most agencies fluctuate between having 5-10% of their positions vacant at any time, but still receive annual appropriations from Congress to cover payroll for its entire workforce.

“Smart agencies — and smart CHCOs and certainly smart agency CFOs — have learned decades ago that you can fund all kinds of things with that lapse rate. It’s free money,” he said. “It’s one, but not the only one, of various sources that an agency can use to pay Special Salary Rates.”

Proposed SSR pay tables obtained by Federal News Network show the SSR for cyber and IT federal positions would result in a more than 20% increase in pay for many early and mid-career federal IT workers receiving locality pay for the Washington, D.C. metro area.

“Frankly, I think it’s going to be hard for any domestic agency to pay the bill,” Sanders said.

Given unresolved debt-ceiling negotiations, Sanders said agencies aren’t likely to decide on SSR implementation before a deal is struck, and that any calls for belt-tightening may prevent the SSR from moving forward.

“I don’t think the Special Salary Rate is DOA. I think it’s on temporary life support,” Sanders said. “While everyone is waiting to see what happens with the debt ceiling, if there are deep domestic cuts, I think the Special Salary Rate is going to founder.”

USDA: ‘Funding is not available at this time’ for SSR

Agencies remain mum on plans to implement the SSR, but USDA is telling its IT workforce there’s currently no clear path to implement the special rate.

USDA has more than 3,700 employees that would be covered under the SSR, and would spend nearly $51 million in calendar year 2023 to move all existing IT employees to the proposed SSR tables.

USDA Chief Information Officer Gary Washington, in an April 5 memo obtained by Federal News Network, said the department’s IT workforce is funded by fee-for-service agreements with component agencies.

If USDA implemented the SSR, Washington said the department would have to cover the costs through USDA agencies’ appropriations.

“While we would like to fully support the implementation of this special pay to all eligible USDA employees, the bottom line is — funding is not available at this time,” Washington told staff in the memo.

Washington told staff that USDA OCIO and its Office of Human Resource Management sent a memo to the office of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack with options to implement the SSR, as well as alternatives.

“We must go before Congress to ask for additional funding for this program and flesh out the details on how this would be implemented with OHRM as well as fulfill any collective bargaining obligations we have with the unions prior to moving forward,” he added.

Washington told OCIO staff, in a March 9 all-hands meeting, that one option presented to Vilsack was to only give special pay rates to “outstanding performers.”

USDA employees, however, soured on that proposal, and told Washington it would be difficult to discern “top performers,” since the department’s performance system only has two ratings — “fully successful” and “not fully successful.”

Washington also acknowledged his proposal to only give the SSR to “top performers” may have offended some employees.

“It is also my understanding that my comments made many of you feel unvalued, that I was evasive in my delivery of the information and some expressed concern that I danced around the subject,” Washington said.

“I do want to sincerely apologize for the confusion and the mixed message you received from me on this subject. OCIO values each one of our information technology professionals. You are the face of OCIO to our customers and the public, and your esprit de corps is known throughout USDA and by the secretary,” he added.

A USDA spokeswoman confirmed the department’s memo regarding the SSR, but didn’t respond to questions about USDA’s next steps, or whether the agency is pursuing any alternative pay incentives.

“The solution to implementing this program has not been determined and while I was sharing with you one of the possible ways to implement the SSR no final decision has been made regarding the way we would proceed,” Washington told staff in his memo. “We have not yet determined if or when this program may be implemented and are awaiting guidance from OSEC on possible solutions.”

DHS cyber talent management system falls short on hiring goals

If a governmentwide Special Salary Rate doesn’t come into focus for federal IT and cyber workers, Sanders said the Biden administration has alternative means of addressing its cyber workforce challenges.

The Department of Homeland Security in 2021 broke new ground on recruiting cyber experts into federal service, when it unveiled its Cybersecurity Talent Management System.

The project took seven years to complete, once Congress in 2014 gave DHS the authority to develop a cyber hiring, job classification and compensation framework separate from the federal government’s traditional practices.

Hires under CTMS can earn as much as the vice president’s salary, in some cases.

Sanders said DHS has broad authority to implement special rates through CTMS. If OPM doesn’t proceed with the SSR for federal IT and cyber employees, he said DHS could hire cyber personnel on behalf of other agencies, and detail them to posts across the federal government.

“That was the original vision of CTMS — that DHS would do all of the hiring for the domestic side of the government, just as Cyber Command does the hiring for the defense [and] national security side of government,” Sanders said.

DHS using CTMS to recruit and manage cyber personnel across the federal civilian government would require substantial funding and staffing, but Sanders said lawmakers may be more receptive to funding a one-stop-shop model for the government’s cyber workforce.

“Nobody’s going to blink twice by giving DHS more money to pay these people,” he said. “You’re not going to turn this on overnight. But if you’re building towards that, as opposed to something far more modest, then eventually it’s going to happen.”

Sanders said a federal cyber workforce rotating between agencies would also be more appealing for in-demand talent.

“No cyber professional these days is going to go to work for any federal agency — DHS or DoD first, but certainly USDA or OPM — with the expectation that they’re going to stay with that agency for 25, or 30 or 35 years. They’re going to move around a lot, and they’re going to move in and out of government a lot,” he said.

DHS ultimately decided against this plan, and instead opted for using CTMS for its own internal hiring efforts. The department initially opened CTMS for new hires to work within the DHS CIO’s office or CISA.

However, the agency has yet to take full advantage of its new pay and personnel system. DHS fell short of its goal of using CTMS to fill 150 positions within its first year of operations.

CISA Director Jen Easterly told the House Homeland Security Committee’s cybersecurity and infrastructure protection subcommittee last month that the agency used CTMS to make 80 hires so far.

Easterly said CISA is still making a majority of its hires under the traditional Title 5 personnel system, and that the agency hired a total of 516 people last year.

“The numbers are, in my humble opinion, quite disappointing,” Sanders said.

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