Workforce roundup: New religious time off authority, a short-term fix for MSPB

Agencies, Federal Executive Boards and other organizations have spent the past week recognizing the workforce and their accomplishments.

Both the House and Senate have recognized Public Service Recognition Week with official proclamations.

Timed with PSRW, the Trump administration also announced the winners of its inaugural “Gears of Government President’s Award.”

With Public Service Recognition Week in full swing, here are several other bills, updates and new regulations to keep an eye on.

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Compensatory time off for religious observances

Federal employees have some new flexibilities to take time off for religious reasons.

The Office of Personnel Management late last week issued final regulations that describe the process that employees must go through to properly use the new religious compensatory time off authority.

The new authority allows federal employees to rearrange their work schedules and perform overtime work to make up for any hours or days that they plan to take off for religious reasons.

Employees must ask to use religious compensatory time off in advance and provide a written description of the observance, dates and times to their supervisor.

“Agency officials are not charged with determining whether an employee’s belief is the correct interpretation of a religious creed,” Margaret Weichert, OPM’s acting director, wrote in a memo to chief human capital officers describing the new regulations. “It is sufficient that the employee’s sincerely held personal religious beliefs cause the employee to feel an obligation that he or she should be absent from work for a religious purpose.”

Agency supervisors must give federal employees an opportunity to earn religious compensatory time off within 13 pay periods in advance of the expected time in which it’s intended to be used or within the following 13 pay periods, according to the new regulations.

For employees who fail to earn compensatory time off within the 13 pay periods after the religious observance, agencies can take corrective action to reduce an employee’s balance of annual leave or credit time. Agencies can also charge an employee leave without pay to resolve any negative balances.

Federal employees can also perform overtime work to accumulate religious compensatory time off, and there’s no time limit to use those hours. An employee can’t forfeit or transfer unused religious time to another type of paid time off, the regulations read.

A short-term (partial) fix for the MSPB

There isn’t much the House of Representatives can do to resolve the situation at the Merit Systems Protection Board, which needs the Senate to act on the President’s nominees to fill a board that’s currently empty.

But at least two members want to try to temporarily resolve at least one of the board’s current shortcomings.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) have introduced new legislation this week, which would give the MSPB general counsel temporary authority to grant stays of personnel actions for whistleblowers.

With the board currently empty and without a quorum, MSPB can’t formally extend and put a hold on a whistleblower’s personnel action if the Office of Special Counsel requests one.

Under the Interim Stay Authority to Protect Whistleblowers Act, the MSPB general counsel would have this authority until at least person earns Senate confirmation and joins the board. The legislation also clarifies that one board member can continue to grant or terminate these stays if the MSPB lacks  a quorum.

Cummings previously spearheaded legislation that gave just one board member the authority to grant stays of whistleblower personnel actions if the MSPB lacks a quorum. Congress passed this legislation back in 2018.

President Donald Trump last week nominated a third member, Chad Bungard, to fill the board. The President’s two other nominees, Dennis Kirk and Julia Clark, have cleared the committee approval process, but their nominations had been held up until the White House announced a third member.

If and when Bungard’s nomination clears the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the full Senate will likely vote on all three MSPB nominees together.

The MSPB has been empty since the carryover term for Mark Robbins, the last remaining board member, expired March 1. MSPB has lacked a quorum since January 2017.

A bill to restore ALJs to competitive service

Connolly and Cummings were also part of a bipartisan group of House members who want to reverse a decision by the Trump administration to remove administrative law judges (ALJs) from the competitive service.

Trump signed an executive order last July that allowed agency heads to directly appoint and hire ALJs using a new “Schedule E” service. The EO essentially moved ALJs from the competitive service to political appointees.

ALJs previously went through a process administered by the Office of Personnel Management. OPM once placed those with the required legal experience and examination scores on a list of qualified candidates. OPM used that register to refer three candidates to a particular agency for consideration.

The ALJ Competitive Service Restoration Act would restore this process.

The bill has support from Administration Committee Ranking Member Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.). House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) have all co-sponsored the bill.

In addition, the Association of ALJs, Federal Administrative Law Judges Conference and National Federation of Federal Employees have endorsed this legislation.

A productive year for Federal Executive Boards

The Office of Personnel Management this week recognized the role that Federal Executive Boards play in advancing the goals of the President’s Management Agenda, training employees and conducting job fairs and outreach events outside of the Washington, D.C. area.

Twenty-eight Federal Executive Boards serve at least 795,345 civilian employees across the country, according to OPM’s latest annual report on FEB activities.

“FEBs convened local agency heads at regular full board meetings to highlight governmentwide and local initiatives, enabling federal leaders to share information related to their agency-specific missions and identify areas that would benefit from cross-agency collaboration,” OPM said.

The Minnesota FEB, for example, sponsored a continuous improvement council to help agencies redesign work flow processes.

Atlanta, Cincinnati, Minnesota and New Orleans FEBs hosted agency showcases to educate potential job applicants and members of the public about individual agencies’ missions.

Several FEBs hosted group exercise activities and health fairs for federal employees. Some FEBs held basic health screenings and helped employees with insurance decisions during open season.

In addition, FEBs held training courses for 31,300 federal employees on improving communication, preparing for retirement, dealing with performance issues and professional development in fiscal 2018, with a cost avoidance of $9.7 million.

Eight FEBs worked with the Office of Management and Budget to match GS-13s through -15s with placements in the President’s Management Council interagency rotation program. The program runs for six months and gives emerging federal leaders a chance to develop specific leadership competencies and organizational experience.

OPM also praised the FEBs for their efforts to train and host emergency preparedness exercises — 14 continuity and 78 planning workshops with more than 1,200 participants — and to recognize federal employees with 2,422 awards in 2018.

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