Fedweek

The pandemic relief bill produced by Senate Republicans this week contains relatively few provisions of direct impact on federal workers, in contrast to a much wider-ranging bill that the House previously approved.

The two chambers now face the task of trying to reconcile many differences just ahead of the Friday expiration of supplemental unemployment insurance benefits approved in a prior relief bill. While the pandemic has not caused unemployment among federal workers, the importance of that issue overall is putting strong pressure on Congress to reach a resolution quickly.

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While breaking off that issue and acting on it separately is an option, House Democrats are resisting that course out of concern that other provisions would then be dropped or at least put off until after the upcoming August congressional recess.

The Senate measure contains one notable provision not in the House counterpart bill, a $1.2 billion budget supplement for U.S. Customs and Immigration Services to head off threatened furloughs due to a drop in fees USCIS charges and relies on. USCIS originally had said it would need to furlough some 13,400 of its 19,000 employees starting August 3, although more recently it put off that action at least through August due to an uptick in receipts and the prospects of Congress providing the supplement. The money is termed a loan, however, which the agency would have to pay back by raising those fees.

The measure further would add funds for cleaning and protective equipment at several agencies but otherwise is silent on federal workplace issues. Its projected $1 trillion in spending is mainly directed toward continuing the unemployment supplement, although at a lower level, as well as other forms of assistance to individuals, businesses and state and local governments.

In contrast, the House-passed bill (HR-6800) would provide some $3 trillion in funding for economic assistance, including a $25 billion supplement to the U.S. Postal Service; it does not address the USCIS situation, which arose after the House bill passed.

In addition, that bill would create: a “hazardous duty differential” of $13 an hour, up to $10,000 maximum for the year plus child care subsidies for workers, including federal employees, who have remained on the job in front-line positions; a presumption that employees in such positions who contract the virus are eligible for Federal Employees Compensation Act benefits; and a presumption that employees eligible for telework should remain in that status until certain standards are met.

It also would allow employees under special retirement provisions for law enforcement, firefighting and air traffic control to remain under those rules if they no longer are able to perform such duties due to having contracted the virus; and extend retroactively to 2019 a previously enacted waiver for 2020 of a requirement that retirees age 72 and above must take certain minimum distributions from retirement savings programs such as the TSP.

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