Families wait for final rule granting flags for feds killed in line of duty

Monday - 6/16/2014, 4:00am EDT

Even after President Woodrow Wilson issued an official proclamation in 1916 declaring June 14 as "Flag Day," it took lawmakers another 33 years to formally recognize the day by an act of Congress.

Federal employee advocates are hoping they won't have to wait quite that long for the Office of Personnel Management to finalize regulations allowing the family members of civilian federal employees killed in the line of duty to be presented with an American flag.

Congress unanimously passed the "Civilian Service Recognition Act" in late 2011, allowing agency heads to present an American flag in honor of federal employees killed in the line of duty as the result of a crime, terrorism or natural disaster.

But OPM has lagged in implementing regulations.

The agency issued a memo to department heads in May 2012 giving them the authority to recognize fallen federal employees with flags while it worked with the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to develop regulations hammering out the details. But OPM didn't issue draft regulations — nor interim guidance to agencies — until last June.

"The final regulations are undergoing clearance," an OPM spokeswoman told Federal News Radio. "We are working hard on the rule and hope to have an update soon."

Lawmaker calls on OPM to ‘move quickly'

The Flag Day celebrations occurring over the weekend have added urgency to the calls of federal-employee groups and lawmakers for OPM to fully implement the law.

"With Flag Day approaching, it is my hope that the administration will move quickly to fully implement the Civilian Service Recognition Act," said Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), the author of the House legislation, in a statement provided to Federal News Radio last week. "The recognition promised by this law may seem modest, but it's significant to federal employees who work within this nation and in countless overseas posts. Our nation values service and sacrifice. A life can never be repaid, but it can be honored; this law will ensure that."

The OPM spokeswoman said agencies don't have to wait for the final regulations to start presenting flags to families and survivors of fallen feds.

But employee advocates say the lack of finalized regulations makes it difficult to know if agencies are carrying out their end of the bargain.

"We hope agencies are carrying out the law. It's just unclear if they are doing so," said Jenny Mattingley, legislative director for the Senior Executives Association, a group that pushed for the flag legislation.

Mattingley said it's also unclear why it's taken so long for OPM to issue final regulations for a fairly straightforward piece of legislation.

"I think that's our biggest question now," she said. "We hope those regulations are coming out soon just to give that reminder to agencies."

In the 20 years leading up to the legislation, nearly 3,000 federal employees had died in the line of duty as the result of a crime, terrorism or natural disaster, according to OPM. The Federal-Postal Coalition, a conglomeration of more than 30 federal employee and manager groups, says more than 20 federal employees were killed in the line of duty since Congress passed the flag legislation.

In 2013, alone, 12 Navy Yard employees were gunned down in September, and the first Transportation Security Administration employee was killed in the line of duty in a shooting at Los Angeles International Airport a few months later.

Groups seek tweak to proposed rules

Even as groups, like SEA, push for finalized regulations, they hope OPM takes into account some of the concerns they had with the draft rules.

The draft regulations largely put the onus on fallen federal employees' next of kin to request the flag, instead of requiring the agency to automatically offer the benefit to survivors.

The wording of the draft regulations "leads us to believe that the burden of proving eligibility will fall disproportionately on the next of kin," SEA said in its comments on the draft rules. "Of primary concern should be ensuring the regulations and systems put in place to provide this benefit make it easy for agencies to get a flag to the next of kin. Burden should be put on the agencies to do so, not the beneficiaries."

That's a concern shared by Bruce Moyer, chair of the Federal-Postal Coalition.

"In time of tragedy and grieving, it's really beyond the pale to expect a family to be thinking of that. … It's the federal government's responsibility to alert that family as to the ability to honor their loved one in that fashion," he said.

OPM does not maintain a list of all federal employees killed in the line of duty. However, as a result of the initial guidance to agencies for establishing the flag benefit, OPM set up new data-reporting tools for agencies to begin reporting employees' deaths in the line of duty. OPM began collecting that data in October.

OPM also houses and maintains the "Wall of Honor," commemorating federal employees killed on the job, at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The wall is updated once a year with names supplied by the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.

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