AFGE, NTEU try to stave off changes to retirement benefits

Friday - 12/6/2013, 4:07am EST

With Congress inching closer to a budget deal, federal employee unions are turning up the heat on lawmakers not to increase the amount feds contribute to their retirement as part of the compromise.

Once again, the American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union are saying enough is enough with the attempts to find savings on the backs of federal employees.

Colleen Kelley, the president of NTEU, said the union sent a letter this week to all 10 members of the conference committee requesting they not reduce employee compensation as a replacement for sequestration.

"Only a very small portion of sequestration funding levels are likely to be replaced, which would mean federal employees would likely continue to face more unpaid furlough days and a resulting loss of pay in both 2014 and 2015," Kelley said during a call with reporters Thursday. "In addition to that, cuts to federal compensation and negative impacts on both federal and Postal employees could account for 25 to 50 percent of the entire amount of these spending cuts that are under consideration to replace sequestration. I think that is outrageous and totally unacceptable."

Kelley added federal employees and retirees already have faced a three-year pay freeze, which saved or helped the government avoid spending $99 billion.

Additionally, Congress passed and the President signed into a law a bill in February 2012 that requires employees hired after Dec. 31, 2012, to contribute 3.1 percent, or 2.1 percent more than other feds, to their retirement benefits. Kelley said that change saved or helped the government avoid spending another $15 billion. She said employees have been part of a total of $114 billion in savings or cost avoidance over the last three years.

Congress is only considering making changes to one part of federal employees' retirement package. Under the Federal Employees Retirement System, the main plan for employees hired since 1986, employees are also required to contribute part of their salaries to Social Security and to their Thrift Savings Plan accounts. The FERS defined-benefit pension only makes up between 34-44 percent of a retiree's full benefits package, depending on years of service.

Legislative language still a mystery

J. David Cox, the national president of AFGE, said the union hasn't seen the actual language yet and, based on a recent conversation with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.), the minority leader, is not sure what's in and what's out.

"We've been working very hard with Majority Leader [Harry] Reid and Sen. [Patty] Murray and [Wednesday night] I did a tele-townhall meeting with all of our membership in Washington and Nevada and encouraged them to call and share their concerns about any increases in federal employee pension contributions," Cox said. "The House is pushing this and at the same token I believe we have a lot of friends in the Senate. It was a big package deal when the President proposed it. It is now being narrowed down where everything falls on the backs of federal employees."

The unions are trying to get ahead of the curve in protesting against possible cuts and drumming up support across the Congress and public.

The conference committee, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D- Wash.), both chairmen of their respective budget committee, hasn't made public its exact plans.

"Congressman Ryan, Senator Murray, and their staffs remain in communication with each other," said a spokesman for Ryan. "Ryan is committed to finding common ground. He hopes both parties can work together to cut spending in a smarter way. They are making progress."

An email to Murray's office seeking comment was not returned.

Murray and Ryan are focusing on a potential pact that leaves politically toxic proposals such as taxes off the table, and instead focuses on less controversial proposals left over from prior budget rounds.

Aides following the talks Thursday say any agreement is likely to include the increased airline ticket fee, a proposal to require both military and civilian federal workers to contribute more to their pensions, and higher premiums on companies whose pension plans are insured by the government. Hospitals that treat a "disproportionate share" of people without medical insurance could see their Medicaid payments trimmed, and the government may be able to squeeze a few billion dollars from leases of government-controlled electromagnetic spectrum.

Additionally, just this week Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Doug Lamborn (R- Colo.) introduced a bill that would add an additional 0.4 percent to employees' contribution a year starting in 2014 and going through 2016, for a total of a 1.2 percent increase. The bill also would require the use of a chained consumer price index to determine the cost of living increase.