The Office of Personnel Management released new guidance on Jan. 15 that would lift 2010 incentive caps for agencies focusing on recruitment, retention and relocation.

The caps, put in place in 2011, limited financial incentives the agencies could spend on employees in hard-to-fill positions, such as cybersecurity, to 2010 levels. Those caps have been in place through 2015.

The new guidance allows exceptions for agencies to offer cash incentives beyond the 2010 spending limits if they demonstrate employees are in positions that fill a critical agency need.

Related: Read the letter

"OPM recognizes the 3Rs are essential pay flexibilities for agencies facing serious staffing challenges," acting OPM director Beth Cobert said in a letter announcing the new guidance. "Agencies may need to resort to more expensive solutions or may have difficulties accomplishing their missions if the 3Rs are not available for use."

Per OPM regulations, the incentives cannot exceed 25 percent of the annual rate of basic pay during the beginning of the employee's career, multiplied by up to four years of service. With OPM approval, the incentive can be increased up to 50 percent of the annual rate of basic pay.

Employees can take the incentives as a lump sum at either the beginning or end of their service, as an installment plan during their service or as a combination of the two.

Cobert cited an Oct. 30 memo of the need for cybersecurity professionals in federal workforce as one example of how cash incentives can attract talent to badly needed positions.

"The flexibility to grant exceptions to the 3Rs spending limit may assist agencies in recruiting and retaining the most highly-qualified cybersecurity employees to meet the Government's important challenges of strengthening Federal networks, systems, and data," she said.

"In the past, agencies have reported using the 3Rs to meet other mission-critical needs, such as paying the 3Rs to employees in health care occupations who treat our nation's military members and veterans."

The guidance requires agencies to develop plans for payment approval criteria, conducting thorough documentation to justify incentive awards and review of all awards given. Plans must include approval of the agency's Chief Human Capital Officer or Human Resources director.

OPM also recently released guidance and a new web-based course on employee engagement as an effort to help managers better communicate with agency employees.

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