Federal Employees News Digest

Feds, unions: Push is on for FY 2020 raise and paid leave

Federal employees—and their unions and advocacy organizations—are stepping up to a big challenge this spring: trying to get traction through a rough patch, and to beat back bad proposals that would hit household pocketbooks over the coming year, and beyond.

Among the worst? President Trump in mid-March issued his FY 2020 budget proposal, calling for a zero percent increase in federal pay—and he continues to push for higher contribution requirements from incoming federal employees.

The push to fight against these proposed erosions of federal compensation—and to pass instead improvements, led by a bill to give feds paid family leave—both face strong headwinds, facing an administration enthusiastic only about funding DOD and national security priorities.

Therefore, federal employee unions, along with other fed advocates and middle-of-the-road experts, are redoubling their efforts to achieve true worker priorities—as evidenced in a flurry of activity in recent weeks.

On Capitol Hill, in March, leaders from the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees testified against the administration’s plans—pushing back especially hard against the proposed pay freeze.

“Once again, the Administration has put forward untenable proposals that decimate employee pay, benefits, rights and protections and makes the federal government a less attractive place to work,” NTEU President Tony Reardon submitted, before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

“NTEU opposes the Administration’s proposal to implement another pay freeze for federal workers in 2020 and to slow the frequency of within grade step increases,” he said. The union backs H.R. 1073, the “Fair Act,” calling for a modest 3.6 increase in pay.

AFGE also hit back before the same panel. “AFGE urges the Subcommittee to adjust the rates of basic pay for employees under the statutory pay systems for FY 2020 by 3.6 percent,” Jaqueline Simon, the union’s public policy director, testified.

Both Reardon and Simon and their unions are backing the same bill, introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

The National Federation of Active and Retired Federal Employees, a nonprofit advocacy group for feds, blasted the administration’s budget in equally strong terms.

“At a time when this administration touts a strong economy and private-sector wage growth, President Trump’s budget request to freeze federal employee pay in 2020 defies logic, exacerbates the federal government’s long-documented recruitment and retention challenges, and, quite frankly, shows nothing but disdain for millions of hard working public servants still recovering from the unnecessary 35-day government shutdown,” NARFE President Ken Thomas said. “I urge Congress to intervene and authorize a reasonable pay raise during the appropriations process.”

NARFE also noted, in Thomas’s press release, that the White House’s proposed changes to employee retirement requirements would be devastating—and that “when combined with [the proposed] pay freeze, increasing retirement contributions results in a six percent pay cut.”

Paid leave: A priority

Federal employee unions are not just pushing back against the administration’s plans to effectively cut compensation. They are coming out fighting for modest improvements, such as paid family leave. They want a new law that would take them beyond the current patchwork of jerry-rigged methods of raiding savings and borrowing from vacation time, which many feds cobble together to take needed family time for caring for children or sick seniors, while covering household expenses. Feds want to move on to a legal and secure system that guarantees paid family leave.

There were some favorable signs for momentum from within the administration that might help feds gain paid family leave. After all, a key presidential advisor—the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump—visited Capitol Hill in February to discuss paid family leave with lawmakers. But those hopes have since been dashed by the release of the president’s budget proposal—which offers nothing on paid family leave, and indeed calls for combining annual and sick leave categories—likely reducing the overall amount of leave rather than expanding it.

“On leave, the union does not support a proposal to lump holidays, sick leave and annual leave into a single category of paid time off,” NTEU’s Reardon told Congress the last week of March, strongly rejecting the budget document’s suggestion that small tweaks to the current system would offer positive change. “[Because] it reduces the total amount of earned leave.”

“Instead, NTEU supports the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, H.R. 1534, which would provide twelve weeks of paid leave to care for a new child or a critically ill family member,” he insisted.

“Few employees can go weeks without pay and no one should be forced to choose between caring for a loved one and a paycheck,” Reardon added pointedly, in a press release.

“There is no business case to be made for this proposal,” Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in a release, of the budget document’s suggestion to combine all leave time. “This Administration is hell-bent on cutting federal workers’ pay and benefits regardless of what harmful consequences come as a result.”

“The United States is the only industrialized nation without national paid parental leave,” AFGE reminded members on its website. “Some private-sector employers choose to provide paid parental leave, but that touches only about 13 percent of all private-sector workers. Federal employees do not have paid parental leave.”

Many outside experts on labor and health matters agree with the unions—and have amassed increasing evidence of the importance of paid family leave in maintaining strong families, and productive employees. 

“Paid family leave is important to the workforce, because families absolutely need time out for child care,” Lawrence Boyd, a labor economist at the University of Hawaii, told FEND. “And parents need the continued pay—the money—as well as that time to deal with their young children.

“But an added problem—and we definitely have this one in Hawaii—that many parents run into is that in many parts of the country, it is hard to find people who will provide these services for pay,” Boyd continued. “It is very difficult, especially to find help to look after infants—there literally are not enough people available to provide the care. In these areas, often the parents must do almost all of the care themselves—so, there’s an even greater need for paid family leave.”

Boyd contrasted this reality against the current family leave “system,” one where feds and many other workers simply patch together whatever days off and resources they can to look after infants, among other family time demands.

“So, first of all, for now the government still does not help with the expense leave or child care at all, and that’s a problem. And, second, we can’t even find the labor to look after very young childcare in parts of the country,” he said. “Again, here you need parents to get the leave time, so they can provide the care for a while themselves.”

Boyd also pointed out that in other developed nations—which already provide paid leave—the evidence is in: not everyone at a given worksite takes the leave at once, so the time off is staggered among staff, and paid family leave turns out to be a good deal for everyone—maintaining productivity, and nicely balancing the costs of the program versus the many benefits.

“For example, we have more than 4,000 employees at the one large federal facility here, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard,” he said. “But, in terms of the difficulties that paid family leave might bring, you have to stop and ask: How many employees would take family leave at any one time?” Boyd said. “The answer is not nearly enough to cause trouble—that’s just a spurious argument—you hear it but it’s not true. In practice, paid family leave would be manageable here, as it is in other countries.”

In fact, there is ample research that paid leave not only improves worker satisfaction, but also saves money for employers. For example, the nonprofit National Partnership for Women & Families website offers numerous studies demonstrating cost savings and other advantages that come with paid family leave. The group, for instance, features a 2017 report estimating that paid family leave leads to increased leave usage of only 6 to 11 percent—and that the financial savings from lower turnover of employees—along with fewer employees quitting work for public assistance—leads to lower net costs for employers. Other studies back the 2017 report, and show savings for taxpayers as well.  

This spring, feds and their unions continue to chug along lobbying for long-gestating proposals for a small pay raise and common-sense bills that offer modest expansions in other areas of federal compensation, such as paid leave time. Yet, ironically, at the same moment—with the arrival recently of the president’s shocking slasher budget—feds must first guard against deep pay and benefits cuts. Unions and advocates encourage feds who agree to support them in the fight.

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Contributors

Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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