Modernizing the federal workforce has and continues to be a priority for the Trump administration as it enters its fourth year, yet the president’s 2021 budget request only offered a few new ideas to make good on those goals.
But the most consequential of the administration’s proposals to modernize the federal workforce are buried deep within the Office of Personnel Management’s budget request, which is tucked inside the 2021 justification for the General Services Administration.
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OPM’s legislative proposals, if adopted, could have some big consequences for large swaths of the federal workforce.
Yes, the agency is recommending a series of familiar changes to federal employee retirement benefits. But OPM is also attempting to clear up confusion and correct parts of the new paid parental leave law, boost pay for employees with specialized skills and amend a 42-year-old law that governs collective bargaining in the federal sector.
It’s unclear how these OPM proposals will fare in Congress this year, as members have generally shown little interest in advancing federal workforce legislation in recent years.
But at the very least, these proposals indicate the administration’s thinking and priorities in its fourth year. Here are five legislative proposals from OPM to watch this year.
It’s no secret the new federal paid parental leave law has its problems. As written, the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA), excludes much of the Federal Aviation Administration workforce and some Transportation Security Administration employees.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced legislation that would correct what lawmakers have described as unintentional mistakes in the federal paid parental leave law.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is working with Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) to correct the law, he told a group of American Federation of Government Employees members Monday.
But OPM offered up its own legislative proposal to correct the new paid parental leave law.
OPM’s recommendation would cover all FAA and TSA employees, and it would clear up ambiguity and ensure Veterans Health Administration and other Title 38 employees receive the same paid parental leave benefits as nearly everyone else.
In addition, OPM’s proposals seek to provide more clarity and close any unintended loopholes about who can use the new paid leave benefits and when.
Paid parental leave, for example, should only be used after the birth or placement of a given child, OPM recommended.
“This would simplify administration, provide a reasonable limit on the amount of paid parental leave that may be used in connection with the birth/placement of a child and be consistent with the objective of allowing parents to bond with a new child,” the proposal reads.
OPM also suggested some limitations on the use of paid parental leave for foster placements, though the proposal is light on specifics.
“This change recognizes that, in some cases, foster care placements may be designed to be for temporary periods of less than one year, which undermines the justification for paid parental leave to allow for long-term bonding with a child,” the proposal reads.
OPM is also considering a new slate of “voluntary benefits,” which may include short-term disability insurance, prepaid legal plans, emergency short-term childcare and personal accident insurance.
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Enrollees would be responsible for the full cost of these benefits, but OPM believes federal workers may end up paying a lower price than they would otherwise had they sought out similar services on the private market.
“Because OPM would harness the group purchasing power of the federal workforce, the cost could be more affordable than if enrollees seek similar benefits in the retail market on an individual basis,” the proposal reads. “As employee benefits in the private sectors evolve, this authority would enhance OPM’s ability to provide a competitive, modern benefits package that fosters recruitment and retention of the highly skilled workforce that the federal government needs.”
OPM doesn’t currently have the authority to hold new funds or contracts to offer these benefits, so it needs permission from Congress to establish these programs.
Allowing OPM to establish brand new benefits programs would likely be a heavy lift for both the agency and Congress, but at the very least, these proposals may get the conversation going.
Individual agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security have stood up similar benefits programs in recent years, which senior leaders have said serve as a valuable recruitment and retention tool — and have led to higher employee engagement.
OPM has also proposed a change to the 42-year-old Federal Service Labor-Management Relations statute. Certain language in that statute, OPM said, “undermines the purpose of a uniform civil service.”
Specifically, OPM wants to allow agencies to enforce rules or regulations that conflict with active collective bargaining agreements. Today, enforcing such rules while CBAs are in place is considered an unfair labor practice.
The change, if adopted by Congress, would likely clear up any confusion around the implementation of the president’s 2018 executive orders on official time, collective bargaining and employee firing.
“Government-wide regulations are promulgated to achieve government-wide uniformity in interpreting and implementing the underlying statute,” the proposal reads. “Permitting agencies and unions to preempt the comprehensive scope of these regulations by agreement during the life of their contract wittingly or unwittingly creates incongruences among agencies and often within agencies for a number of years. Because agencies’ authority to promulgate government-wide regulations have their source in statute and executive order, the current statutory provision has the effect of permitting local agreements to preempt the authority to interpret and apply statutes through regulation that are authorized or mandated by law.”
In arguing in favor of the president’s 2018 workforce EOs in court, the Trump administration likened the orders to governmentwide regulations.
In previous guidance, OPM has instructed agencies to begin implementing the executive orders as soon as the current term for a collective bargaining agreement expires or rolls over — even if agencies and unions haven’t opted to reopen their contracts.
But changing the statute as OPM has suggested may allow agencies to begin enforcing the workforce EOs and other governmentwide regulations much more quickly, regardless of a collective bargaining agreement.
The Trump administration has consistently argued for more flexibility to pay portions of the federal workforce with highly specialized or in-demand skills. But these legislative proposals from OPM describe the administration’s vision with much more clarity.
OPM, for example, wants to boost critical pay up to the rate of the vice president, $246,900 in 2019.
The number of positions approved for critical pay would also jump from 800 to 2,000, meaning OPM would have the ability to grant employees in specialized, in-demand jobs significantly higher salaries than most others in Title 5 or other personnel systems.
In addition, OPM is also seeking the authority to allow agencies to pay special incentives, worth up to 25% of their basic pay, to employees and sectors of the workforce who have certain high-demand skills.
Under this authority, OPM would review these critical skills at least once a year to re-certify, revise or eliminate them, according to the legislative proposal.
OPM has also suggested slowing the progression of General Schedule step increases over time.
Employees, for example, would wait two years instead of one to progress to steps two, three or four. They’d wait three years instead of two to advance to steps five, six and seven.
Advancements to steps eight, nine or 10 would require a four-year wait, rather than a three-year one, OPM said.
In addition, employees would no longer be able to appeal agency step increase determinations to the Merit Systems Protection Board, OPM said.
Under another OPM proposal, employees would still need earn an “acceptable” on their performance reviews in order to advance to steps two through seven. Advancing to steps eight through 10, however, would require a performance rating of at least “fully successful,” OPM said.