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Pay and Benefits Watch: For Leave or Money

Pay and Benefits Watch: For Leave or Money

Alyssa Rosenberg | Government Executive

December 03, 2009

Between November and January, federal employees tend to think more about how they will use their leave than how they accrue it. But as personnel officials weigh hiring reforms, and existing flexibilities for enticing promising applicants to federal service, one leave policy raises concerns about how managers should be negotiating more strategically with new hires and how accrual rates vary across government.

In 2004, the Federal Workforce Flexibility Act gave agencies the ability to create continuity between employment in the private sector and the public sector when it comes to leave for members of the Senior Executive Service. When they start working in the federal government, employees earn leave at a rate of four hours per pay period. After three years, the rate goes up to six hours per pay period, with 10 hours in the last pay period of the year. That increases to eight hours per pay period after 15 years of service. Most companies have similar scales, in which employees earn more leave the longer they work for their employer. But the policy also means experienced employees from private sector companies who decide to work for federal agencies could see their annual leave plummet to the levels of a recent college graduate.

“Finally, enough people complained,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Under the new policy, agencies can treat the years of private sector work experience employees spent gaining skills that are specifically applicable to their new jobs in government as years of federal employment when calculating how much leave they can earn. But agencies don’t have to offer employees that credit: It’s a discretionary authority, and it’s a one-time offer. If they decide to grant the leave credit, they must do it before the employee starts working.

According to Palguta, it’s a recruitment tool that doesn’t require money out of agency budgets upfront, unlike recruitment and retention bonuses or offers to pay off new employees’ student loans. It does ultimately cost agencies money to give employees more time off, he said, but those costs are smaller and spread over a longer period of time.

Given that cost analysis, Palguta said hiring managers and agencies need to be fully aware of all the extras they have to offer in negotiations with prospective candidates — and think strategically about which ones to propose. Discussing only pay when things such as extra leave, flexible work schedules and educational opportunities could be on the table is a mistake, he said.

“Traditionally I think managers get trained by culture and habit to exercise a take-it-or-leave-it approach: ‘This is the job; this is what the law says I can pay you,’ " Palguta said. “These are things officials should be looking at as bargaining chips. They don’t have to put them all on the table, but it’s the art of negotiation.”

Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the flexibility is useful, but it highlights inconsistencies in federal leave policies.

One example he cited was an Office of Personnel Management decision in 2008 that excluded administrative law judges from receiving eight hours of leave per pay period like other senior employees, because unlike members of the SES, the judges do not operate under a pay-for-performance system. Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., introduced legislation in late 2008 to give them access to higher rates of leave, but the bill never advanced beyond committee.

“While IFPTE thinks [leave accrual flexibility] is certainly a worthwhile benefit, particularly when you consider that the government is competing with the private sector for the best and brightest, the OPM and the Congress would be better served to first take a close look at their current workforce and clean up the in-house annual leave discrepancies that currently exist,” Biggs said.

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