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News Digest: May 7

May. 6, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
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Pension processing backlog drops in April

Federal retirement claims slowed in April, which helped the Office of Personnel Management cut its backlog of unprocessed pension claims.

But OPM's pension processing also declined in April, from 12,386 claims processed in March to 8,028 last month. That was slightly less than the 8,300 claims OPM expected to process in April.

In a statement to Federal Times, OPM Associate Director of Retirement Services Ken Zawodny said experienced claims processers spent April helping train new processers who have been hired since January and are beginning to adjudicate simpler cases. The experienced processers also spent part of April working with a Lean Six Sigma team from the Navy to find ways to improve adjudication.

OPM received 6,616 retirement claims in April 17 percent less than the 8,000 cases it expected, and 15 percent less than the 7,773 feds who retired in April 2011. That drop allowed OPM to weather the productivity decline and cut its pension backlog from 52,274 cases in March to 51,016 in April. OPM had expected a 55,078-case backlog last month.

Council presses for expanded bargaining tests

The National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations last week asked President Obama to continue testing expanded collective bargaining rights for two more years.

The council set up 12 pilot tests in 2010 to bargain over so-called permissive subjects such as the numbers, types and grades of employees doing particular jobs, or the types of technologies they use that are usually left for managers to decide. Supporters of so-called B1 bargaining, such as Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, said it would help agencies save money by leading to more efficient and effective ways to accomplish their missions.

But the pilot tests showed few concrete signs of progress, according to the report the council delivered May 1. The report said that many of the participating agencies should have developed stronger metrics to track their progress, and needed more guidance from the national partnership council.

Lawmakers question conference spending

On the heels of the General Services Administration's Las Vegas conference scandal, lawmakers last week questioned conference spending at two agencies.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, asked the Internal Revenue Service to explain why it sent 19 employees to a three-day conference in Miami Beach last week. The conference, OffshoreAlert, provides tax and audit-related updates to representatives of offshore financial centers, which are used by corporations and the wealthy to protect financial holdings.

There was no reason for 19 IRS employees to attend, Grassley said in an April 30 letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman.

Grassley asked the IRS for data, including a list of the employees who attended the conference.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also come under fire for seeking industry bids for a speaker to train officials on "translating magic and principles of the psychology of magic, magic tools, techniques and experiences into a method of teaching leadership" for an upcoming conference, according to Government Executive. NOAA later withdrew the request.

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, called on NOAA to halt all spending associated with the conference.

Air Force begins third round of buyouts

The Air Force's third round of buyouts and early retirements for civilian employees began last week.

Most employees have until May 14 to apply for a buyout or early-out, but some bases have moved up their deadline. Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina sent employees a memo that said they must apply by May 11.

Employees whose applications are approved must leave by Aug. 31.

The Air Force is using buyouts and early-outs to reduce its rolls while avoiding layoffs. This third round will give the Air Force flexibility to transfer civilians to avoid layoffs. The service will allow employees who would otherwise be laid off to transfer to another base to fill a vacancy created by a buyout.

Senators urge USPS to delay closures

The U.S. Postal Service should freeze plans to close up to several thousand post offices and processing plants until Congress signs off on a comprehensive fix for the cash-strapped mail carrier, 47 senators told Postmaster General Pat Donahoe in two separate letters last week.

The Postal Service previously agreed to postpone any downsizing until May 15 to give Congress a chance to act.

In one of the letters, 43 senators expressed concern that any closings before passage of final legislation "would be devastating to communities around the country."

In a recent C-SPAN appearance, Donahoe made no commitment to continuing the moratorium, but said any changes "will be incremental over the course of the summer."

Interior awards contract for cloud-based email

Eighteen months after the Interior Department awarded a $60 million contract to a Microsoft vendor for cloud email services, the department has awarded a new contract to a Google vendor.

Interior awarded a $35 million contract for cloud-based email to Ohio-based Onix Networking Corp., according to an announcement on fbo.gov. The Google Apps for Government solution will provide employees with instant messaging, desktop video conferencing, web-based collaboration systems and email on their mobile devices.

The award follows a battle between Google and Microsoft for Interior's business. In a lawsuit it later dropped, Google said Interior restricted competition by requiring a Microsoft email solution. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims halted the contract, and Interior issued a new call for industry proposals in February.

Interior expects to move 92,000 employees from seven email systems to the single system by December, Andrew Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services, said in an interview.

Obama: Keep domestic violence out of workplace

President Obama has ordered the Office of Personnel Management to develop by December rules for preventing and dealing with domestic violence in the workplace.

The new policies will detail how managers are to discipline employees who commit or threaten acts of domestic violence and how they should intervene early in abusive situations, OPM spokeswoman Brittney Manchester said.

There were 21 incidents of domestic violence or domestic assault at federal facilities in fiscal 2011, according to the Federal Protective Service.

Manchester said many agencies have policies to prevent violence but they may not address the unique issues regarding domestic violence.

Officials from the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security departments, as well as domestic violence experts, will assist in developing the new policy, which will take effect in one year.

3 systems under review for green building goals

The General Services Administration will review three systems as tools to certify how well federal buildings meet goals for maintaining and constructing energy-efficient buildings.

The certification systems that passed GSA's initial screening: the Green Building Initiative's Green Globes, U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and the International Living Building Challenge.

GSA primarily uses LEED to evaluate facilities, but must by law revisit how it judges buildings every five years. After further review, including a public comment period, GSA expects to make a final recommendation to the Energy Department in the fall.

OPM: No health coverage for same-sex partners

Although lesbian federal employee Karen Golinski won health care coverage for her wife in a February court ruling, other gay and lesbian feds still cannot get coverage for their same-sex spouses or partners.

The Office of Personnel Management sent a notice out on its benefits listserv May 3 that said the Golinski ruling does not apply to anyone else.

"OPM has been directed by the Department of Justice to continue applying the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to all other situations," OPM said. "Therefore, if you receive a request to enroll a same-sex spouse, you are still precluded by DOMA from processing the enrollment request or sending it to the [Federal Employees Health Benefits] Plan."

DOMA prevents the government from legally recognizing same-sex marriages. Justice last year said it believes DOMA is unconstitutional and it would no longer defend the law, and backed Golinski's case.

OPM in March ordered Blue Cross Blue Shield to cover Golinski's wife, Amy Cunninghis.

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