Update: This story was updated on Oct. 25 to reflect that Sinema’s bill was approved by the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee.
Family members of federal employees killed on the job would see their bereavement payout increase by a factor of 10 and their funeral benefit jump 11-fold under a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent from Arizona.
Already, one-time death “gratuities” are paid out to fallen Foreign Service officers and families of service members who die on active duty or while serving in certain reserve statuses. For other civil servants, however, death benefits have not been updated for more than two decades.
Currently, the survivor of a federal employee who dies while performing on the job is eligible to receive a death benefit of as much as $10,000. The bill, if passed, would increase that to $100,000 and include annual adjustments for inflation.
“Surviving family members of federal workers who die in the line of duty should receive fair and full benefits,” said Sinema, who was chosen to fill a vacancy on the Senate Appropriations committee Tuesday. “We’re honoring their sacrifice to keep our country safe and secure.”
The bill would also increase funeral benefits to $8,800 from $800. The average cost of a funeral today is between $7,000 and $8,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Unions collectively representing hundreds of thousands of federal workers voiced their support for the bill. A companion measure was introduced in the House by Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
“The current rates have not kept up with the times, staying static since 1997, and the funeral allowance hasn’t changed since 1966,” said Craig Carter, president of the Federal Managers Association, in a statement.
At a time when the necessity, size and politicization of the federal government is repeatedly called into question by Republican members of Congress, the public and even presidential candidates, the bill offers recognition of many federal employees whose work, whether connected to law enforcement or not, puts them in harm’s way.
Federal unions representing police officers, election officials, IRS employees and U.S. attorneys and prosecutors have said there has been an increased volume of threats made against civil servants in recent years. On Jan. 6, 2021, nearly U.S. Capitol Police officers were assaulted when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building to protest the election of Joe Biden, according to the Department of Justice.
In May, the Treasury Department’s inspector general said it was concerned that “taxpayers and anti-government or anti-tax groups with malevolent intent may use the Internet or social media to track down and identify IRS employees, their families, their homes, and personal information to threaten, intimidate, or locate them for physical violence,” the Associated Press reported.
“Attorney General Merrick Garland has reported significant increases in these threats in the last year and, unfortunately, federal prosecutors have reported being harassed and assaulted by criminal defendants to our organization,” said Steve Wasserman, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, in a statement.
And in other ways, some on Capitol Hill and in previous administrations have sought to cut “perks” of public service by stripping away employment protections under Schedule F, urging stricter disciplinary procedures, rolling back telework flexibilities and eliminate automatic annual pay raises.
While the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis could not for certain predict how many survivors would receive death benefits each year, it predicts this change would cost roughly $4 million a year, on average.
“The number of federal employees who die in the course of their duties could vary considerably,” according to CBO. “Terrorist attacks, natural disasters, pandemics, wars, or other exogenous events could significantly increase the number federal employees who die on the job. CBO has no basis to assess the likelihood of any of those events, or the extent to which those events would change the number of employee deaths per year compared with what we estimated for purposes of this estimate.”
The bill is cosponsored by Sens. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Josh Hawley, M-Mo.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.