US lawmakers act to protect civil servants from shut-downs

By on 07/04/2019
Supporting federal staff: Democrat Representative Elijah Cummings, seen here with a federal Coast Guard commander, is promoting legislation to protect civil servants. Pic by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Brazzell

Two new bills have been put forward by US legislators, with the aim of protecting the health insurance benefits of federal workers during future government shut-downs.

The first piece of legislation would ensure that employees can enroll new dependents onto the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program (FEHBP). In the recent 35-day partial shut-down, some civil servants were unable to register the birth or adoption of a new child because the staff responsible for the process were ‘furloughed’ – sent home until a budget could be agreed. The new bill proposes to address the situation by exempting staff responsible for registration from any future shutdown.

The second bill would protect employees’ dental, vision and long-term health care insurance during shut-downs. Staff are currently required to cover premium payments themselves if they go two consecutive months without pay. Non-payment can lead to policies being cancelled altogether – and unpaid staff often lack the cash to cover insurance premiums.

Cross-party action

The legislation was introduced in both the House and the Senate by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), introduced the bills in the House, while Tina Smith (D-Minn.), introduced the measures in the Senate.

The bills were also sponsored in the House by Representatives Gerry Connolly, D-Va.; Mark Meadows, R-N.C.; Katherine Clark, D-Mass.; Don Young, R-Alaska; and Van Taylor, R-Texas.

Senators D-Minn.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; and Mark Warner, D-Va. sponsored the bills in the Senate.

In a joint statement, the group of lawmakers said: “Government shutdowns place thousands of federal employees and their families in very difficult positions.  While we truly hope to avoid shutdowns in the future, the measures we are introducing today would ensure that federal employees could enrol their newborn babies in their health insurance plans and that they would not lose their dental, vision, or long-term care insurance if another funding lapse occurs.  We owe it to our civil servants to mitigate the impact of funding lapses over which they have no control,” Government Executive reported.

Delayed, but paid

Meanwhile, President Trump has finally signed an executive order allowing federal workers to receive their 2019 pay rise, some six weeks after he agreed it.

The average 1.9% raise, backdated from the beginning of the year, was agreed on February 15. However, since then it’s been unclear when workers would see it in their pay packets.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) updated its locality pay tables last week, after Trump signed the Executive Order.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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