Locality pay, official time reports likely to rekindle federal pay debate

Thursday - 11/15/2012, 5:27am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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Get ready for another round of every federal employee's favorite game, "Are your pay and benefits too high?"

Two new reports expected in the coming month are expected to rekindle the always heated pay debate. The Federal Salary Council in the coming weeks will make new recommendations to change which counties get locality pay increases.

At the same time, the Office of Personnel Management is finalizing its 2011 report on how much time employees spend on union activities.

Angela Bailey, the Office of Personnel Management's chief human capital officer, said the council will submit its recommendations to the President's Pay Agent as early as this week.

"There's a recommendation for the creation of dozens of new locality pay areas" Bailey said Tuesday at the annual open meeting of the Chief Human Capital Officer's Council in Washington. "There's a change in the criteria for adding counties to existing locality pay areas, and there's an adoption of the occupational employment statistics program method developed by Bureau of Labor Statistics for measuring non-federal pay levels."

Locality pay unchanged in recent years

The council's recommendations are by no means guaranteed to be accepted by President Barack Obama.

Angela Bailey, chief human capital officer, OPM

Last year the pay agent rejected the council's recommendations to create new locality pay areas for six areas: Albany, N.Y; Albuquerque; Bakersfield, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Portland, Maine.

In 2011, the President froze locality pay at 2010 levels.

The second report, called the official time survey, measures how many hours employees spend on union related activities during working hours. Under law, they are allowed to spend a certain amount of time on union activities, but it must be tracked and measured.

Bailey said the annual report to Congress shows increases in the use of official time across the board.

"Total official time across the government has gone up 10.85 [percent] increase from 2010 to 2011 in the actual number of hours," she said. "And a little over 13 percent increase in the cost of official time hours."

The official time survey likely will gain a lot of interest on Capitol Hill. Last year's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce on the report was contentious.

OPM released the results of its 2009 survey just last year and found non-postal service civilian agency employees spent almost 3 million hours performing union work on government time. This equates to an average of 2.58 hours per employee a year. OPM estimates that official time cost the government more than $129 million in salary and benefits.

Pay freeze to continue?

On top of both of these reports, federal pay will remain in the spotlight during the budget negotiations and leading up to the end of the continuing resolution in March. Obama froze employee pay during the CR, which runs through March 27.

"Right now, we are coordinating with OMB on the presidential memorandum directing agencies to continue the freeze on pay adjustments in the general increase granted by administrative action to the first day of the pay period beginning March 27, 2013," Bailey said. "That would make it consistent with the extension of the pay freeze on the statutory pay adjustments. We also are preparing guidance to go out with regard to that on the pay freeze as well."

It's unclear what OPM and OMB are preparing in the memo and guidance. A request to OMB and OPM for further explanation on the memo and guidance was not returned.

Pam Malam, deputy chief human capital officer, Department of the Interior

Beyond the reports and pay issues, the CHCO Council addressed several other hot button workforce issues, including diversity, veterans hiring, the need to certify federal HR employees and a USAJobs.gov update.

Pam Malam, the deputy CHCO at the Interior Department, said USAJobs.gov is making progress.

Malam said the council will hold a meeting with agency officials to create a new strategy for recruiting workers through USAJobs.gov.

x In the short term, OPM plans to prioritize new functional requirements and ensure technical changes will continue to meet mission needs.

OPM Director John Berry said potential applicants posted more than 17,000 resumes on the site last year. And he said the site's customer satisfaction rate is higher now than at any other time over the last five years.

New home for HRU

OPM also moved HR University to the employee services division and out of the CHCO Council's purview.

Kathryn Medina, the CHCO Council's executive director, said HR University has more than 16,000 users and saved the government more than $31 million.

Bailey said OPM hired a program manager to further develop HR University.

"Some of the more exciting things we are doing is working with these colleges and universities to get credited HR degrees up on HR University," she said. "One of the things, I really have a dream, is to create a federal HR degree that would be accredited that we could run through HR University so that it's one of the greatest ways we could go about closing the skills gap."

Kathryn Medina, executive director, CHCO Council

Federal employees also are using HR University to relearn the basics of HR.

"Everyone talks about being a consultant and having a seat at the table. You can't have a seat at the table or be a consultant if you don't know the basics of HR," Bailey said. "Some of the things we want to concentrate on is staffing, classifications and labor and employees relations. It's our nuts and bolts of how we get our jobs done."

The program also is working with American University and George Mason University on programs. OPM is running a pilot with its own employees and with George Mason to create a master's degree in federal HR.

200 PMFs ready to be hired

The council also will review plans in December for a governmentwide HR certification program. Treasury has one in operation and that's a model for the rest of government.

OPM also is developing both an exit survey for Senior Executive Service members who are retiring or leaving government and is considering a survey on why SESers stay in government.

"The purpose of this survey is we want to obtain information that is relevant to the executives in regards to retention, workforce planning and recruitment," Bailey said. "We will use our own staff here to get this survey up on a weblink so that you can use it and doesn't become an onerous process for you."

OPM is testing the SES-stay interview about why they are staying in government and what would make them leave.

Bailey said OPM's experience with the Stay interview was helpful in understanding the motivations of SESers. OPM found SESers stay because they feel good about their jobs and the impact they are having. They can also leave a legacy. The agency found if SESers would leave if they felt their job wasn't a benefit or not valued.

Bailey said many SESers say if they left, they would go somewhere to continue to make a difference, but not necessarily to make big money.

OPM also is extending the deadline for applications to the 2013 Presidential Management Fellows Program by another week. Berry said it's now due the Monday after Thanksgiving.

In the 2012 class, Berry said about 200 fellows are still looking for jobs, and agencies could hire them immediately. Of the 566 fellows available for placement, the Department of Health and Human Services brought on 86, the most of any agency. The State Department brought on 42 fellows and the Homeland Security Department hired 32.

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