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Senator Asks GAO to Study Federal Program that Provides Workers Comp Benefits to Elderly Employees

Source: Washington Post

Posted on 18 Jan 2011

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Senator Susan M. Collins (R-Maine) has asked the Government Accountability Office to study the program that provides income to injured federal workers, to ensure that people too old to work aren't cheating the system.

According to Collins, about 49,000 people get benefits from the Federal Employee Compensation Act, some of them well into retirement age,

"I am increasingly concerned that individuals with no intention of returning to work continue to receive these benefits," she said. "At the U.S. Postal Service, for example, 1,000 employees currently receiving federal workers' compensation benefits are 80 years or older. Incredibly, 132 of these individuals are 90 and older and there are three who are 98.

"This abuse may extend across the government where the Department of Labor regularly pays benefits to employees in their 70s, 80s, 90s, and even 100s. The lack of benefit caps and requirements for regular third-party certifications of continued need further expose the FECA program to possible fraud. If recipients are gaming this crucial benefit at taxpayers' expense, they must be exposed and the underlying program must be reformed."

She asked GAO to report on the length of time people stay on the program, the number of recipients who get compensation benefits beyond retirement age and how the program compares with state workers' compensation programs.

Beth Moten, legislative and political director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union maintains that any review should"include a comprehensive analysis of why Transportation Security Administration officers incur on-the-job injuries at a much higher rate than other federal employees."

Although the pay of federal employees already has been frozen for two years, that's not enough for Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.). He has introduced, again, legislation that would cut their pay by imposing a two-week unpaid furlough in 2012.

Coffman introduced similar legislation last year but it didn't get far in the Democratically controlled Congress. With Republicans running the House, his bill should have a greater chance of success in that chamber, though its chances for approval by the Senate are less likely.

"Furloughs are becoming commonplace for state and local governments, and it's only reasonable for the federal government to follow suit," Coffman said. National security, public health, public safety and law enforcement employees would be excluded. Employees would be required to spread their furlough days throughout the year to lessen the impact on service.

To his credit, Coffman also would include members of Congress in the sacrifice. He would cut their salaries by 10 percent. Overall, he expects his legislation would save about $5.5 billion.

"I want to make the U.S. government as cost-conscious as the states," Coffman said. "At least 24 states have enacted similar budget-cutting measures, while the federal government continues to grow and rack up debt." His news release announcing the legislation did not acknowledge that a federal freeze is in place.

AFGE President John Gage said "requiring federal employees to take two weeks of unpaid leave would have a detrimental impact on the federal services and programs that millions of American taxpayers depend on each and every day. . . . Federal employees take a public oath to faithfully carry out the jobs they are hired to perform, and forcing them to take leave without pay goes against this sworn obligation."

Speaking of pay, the Pentagon says the pay freeze will not prevent Defense Department civilians covered by the quickly disappearing National Security Personnel System from getting performance awards.

The awards will be drawn from a fund that equals 2.26 percent of the salary pool.

That figure does not represent an across-the-board raise, although almost everyone still under NSPS will get a performance award.

"The 2.26 percent represents the overall percentage of salary dollars available within a given pay pool for performance-based pay increases," according to Major Monica Bland, DOD spokeswoman.

Awards are based on performance. NSPS employees must have an annual rating of "3," which is a "valued performer," or higher to be eligible for a performance award. The top rating is "5," a "role model."

In 2010, 98.5 percent of NSPS employees were rated "3" or higher, according to the Pentagon. Those rated "fair" or "unacceptable" will not get a performance award.

A Pentagon statement emphasized that the performance awards are consistent with the pay freeze affecting federal workers generally.

"NSPS performance awards are based solely on each employee's individual performance and are neither automatic nor guaranteed," Bland said. "The funds used for these payouts are not derived from funds that would have been used for a GS [General Schedule] or NSPS general pay increase."

Congress ordered a phasing out of NSPS after repeated complaints by employees who did not trust the pay-for-performance system, even though NSPS workers often received higher pay raises than their GS colleagues.