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News Digest: Oct. 22

Oct. 21, 2012 - 08:55AM   |  
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Pay gap widens, council says

The pay advantage private-sector employees enjoy over their federal counterparts shot up to 34.6 percent this year, the Federal Salary Council said last week — 8.3 percentage points higher than the 26.3 percent pay gap reported last year.

The National Treasury Employees Union and American Federation of Government Employees said the widening gap, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, is largely due to the freeze in federal pay scales that has been in effect for the last two years. The pay freeze is scheduled to continue at least through March, though it could go longer if Congress cannot agree on a budget.

“This is just one more example of why the pay freeze needs to come to [an] end in 2013, and NTEU will continue to work to that end when Congress reconvenes,” NTEU National President Colleen Kelley said.

The council’s working group attributed the swing to a change in its methodology. President Obama’s budget effectively canceled the National Compensation Survey — one of two models used by BLS to estimate the pay gap — and forced it to rely on only a model using Occupational Employment Statistics data.

The council said that last year, as BLS started to phase out NCS, about 40 percent of the increase in pay gaps was attributable to the reduced NCS sample. The rest of last year’s hike was due to the freeze, the adoption of a new methodology and other factors.

Groups call for lower contractor pay

Unions and government watchdogs are reviving a push to decrease what the government pays for defense contractors’ salaries.

Defense contractors are not allowed to charge the government more than $763,029 for most employees’ wages, salary, bonuses and deferred compensation. That cap should be lowered to $230,700, the vice president’s salary, 10 organizations — including the American Federation of Government Employees and Project on Government Oversight — said in an Oct. 18 letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

“With budget cuts and sequestration looming, it is fiscally irresponsible to allow private contractors to charge escalating and exorbitant rates to the government,” the letter said.

The contractor compensation cap only applied to company executives until this year, when Congress extended it to all contract employees, except those with “unique and needed skills,” such as engineers. Industry associations, such as the Professional Services Council, have argued that companies must charge higher salaries to remain competitive with their private-sector counterparts.

Bankers: Prevent ‘fiscal cliff’

President Obama and Congress must cooperate to keep the nation from going over the “fiscal cliff” early next year when a combination of tax increases and federal budget cuts are set to take effect, leaders of the banking industry said in a letter last week to the White House and lawmakers.

The impact of the fiscal cliff would lead to a new recession, the bankers wrote, adding that uncertainty is already holding back economic growth.

With 25 million people out of work or underemployed, “the American people do not deserve the impact of more gridlock in Washington,” they said.

The letter was signed by the chief executives of Bank of America, Wells Fargo and 13 other major financial services firms.

IG: High contractor travel costs at DoE

The Energy Department spent $360 million on international travel from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2012 — with $300 million, or 83 percent, of the spending by contractors, according to a report issued last week by the agency’s inspector general.

While the department implemented a mandatory 30 percent reduction in travel by federal employees, there was no similar action to reduce contractor travel, the IG said.

“Despite the sizable expenditure of federal funds, the department had not made a concerted effort to reduce contractor international travel costs,” according to the report.

The IG recommended the department use its travel management system to identify trends in travel and areas to reduce costs and waste.

The report estimated the department could save $15 million each year by reducing international travel by its contractor workforce.

The Energy Department said it would track and reduce contractors’ travel spending.

IRS needs to track IT workers’ skills, IG says

The Internal Revenue Service should develop a tool to better track the competencies of its information technology workforce, according to an inspector general report released last week.

A report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that IRS’ IT organization relies on management’s knowledge and judgment of an employee’s skills, rather than a system or database that shows skills across IT occupations, such as IT specialist, computer engineer and project manager.

“Without a competency database, IRS IT organization management cannot efficiently and effectively manage the skills of the workforce,” the report said. The organization also risks “being unable to effectively and efficiently achieve its mission of delivering services and solutions that drive effective tax administration.”

The IRS IT organization said it will pilot a new workforce management tool this month. It will require employee self-assessments and ongoing analysis to determine employees’ skills and skills gaps.

Opportunity for artists at new LA courthouse

The General Services Administration is looking for $1.5 million in public art for a new courthouse in Los Angeles.

GSA issued a notice of opportunity Oct. 18 as part of its push to build a $322 million, 600,000-square-foot facility for the U.S. District Court, Federal Protective Service, U.S. Marshals Service and a GSA field office. The agency plans to finish the facility in 2016.

GSA typically sets aside 0.5 percent of the total construction costs for public art, and can choose one artist or multiple artists.

Republican lawmakers have opposed the courthouse project as a waste of taxpayer money.

NOAA opens new weather center in Maryland

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week opened a new Center for Weather and Climate Prediction in College Park, Md.

The $100 million, 268,000-square-foot facility — home to 800 meteorologists, scientists, data managers and researchers — is set to receive LEED Silver, the third-highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

The building has environmentally friendly features such as a storm water collection system for irrigation, waterless toilets, highly efficient lighting systems and occupancy sensors that turn off building systems after employees leave.

Organization honors cybersecurity workers

Members of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Awareness, Training and Evaluations Division Team were among federal employees and contractors honored last week by the information security organization ISC2.

The FAA team, which provides information system security training services for employees across the Transportation Department, launched a campaign to ensure at least 95 percent of its target audience completed annual information security awareness training. Nearly 600 information system security specialists received mandatory training.

David Rohert, a senior principal systems engineer at Computer Sciences Corp., was also honored for leading the Defense Department’s Joint Capability Technology Demonstration Adaptive Red Team in its development of a scenario-based process to replicate real-world cyber attacks against DoD.

Army’s annual spending on AUSA conferences: $10M+

The Army spent more than $10 million each on annual Association for the U.S. Army conferences in 2010 and 2011, according to a report last week from Bloomberg News.

Bloomberg reported that the Army spent $10.7 million on the 2010 conference and $10.6 million in 2011. The three-day conferences are educational forums for service members and civilian employees on topics such as cyberwarfare, Bloomberg said.

The revelations of the Army spending come after the General Services Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department were rocked by scandals involving excessive conference spending.

Bloomberg noted that each Army conference cost roughly 13 times as much as GSA’s $823,000 conference, which was in Las Vegas in 2010 and ended up bringing down the agency’s administrator.

The Army told Bloomberg it would be misleading and unfair to compare its conferences to GSA’s and VA’s.

GSA “got in trouble for spa treatments and iPods,” Army spokesman Michael Brady told Bloomberg. “That just doesn’t happen here.”

AUSA spokesman David Liddle told Bloomberg that the conferences’ transparency, structure and value make them “the gold standard of how these things should be run.”

U.S. ends fiscal 2012 with $1.1 trillion deficit

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports the U.S. finished fiscal 2012 with a $1.1 trillion deficit, the fourth consecutive year with a deficit of $1 trillion or greater.

On a positive note, CBO says the deficit spending was $200 billion less than in fiscal 2011 and $38 billion less than the budget office had forecast in August, mostly because revenues were larger than expected.

Balancing deficit reduction with national security needs will be a significant issue after the November elections, when Congress will face a perfect storm of budget woes: the threat of sequestration, reaching the $16 trillion limit on government borrowing and the March 27 expiration of a temporary government funding bill.

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