Welles: Looking back at 2005

It has been a year of mixed blessings for federal employees and retirees

At the beginning of this year, I predicted that 2005 would bring a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. Although some of that came true, particularly in the battles about pay for performance, it has mostly been a year of mixed blessings for federal employees and retirees.

It was a weary but heroic year as federal employees volunteered for other duties and donated leave to those who needed time off to help during hurricane disasters. It got ugly, too, with the specter of New Orleans' flood victims and the questions about the government's response, which are still under examination.

Some had feared significant erosion on the subject of competitive sourcing, but it did not come to pass. The Republican Study Committee proposed cutting retiree benefits, but the proposal went nowhere in 2005. It may rear its head again in 2006.

Pay increases for federal and military employees went up, as did health insurance premiums. But more people used health savings to defray some health care costs and paid premiums with pre-tax dollars. Despite a concerted effort, premium conversion legislation to give retirees the same benefit of paying for health insurance with pre-tax benefits died on the table.

Pay-for-performance plans stalled at the Homeland Security Department because of union litigation but moved ahead successfully in areas of the Defense Department, notably at the Navy Department.

Dental and vision benefits, which many hoped would be available for this year's open season, were delayed a year. But the Office of Personnel Management announced that flexible spending accounts would be expanded and could cover dental and vision costs for those who choose.

The Thrift Savings Plan's new L funds were a popular alternative. The Lifestyle Funds provide appropriate investment allocations based on when people intend to withdraw funds. Retirees invested more than $1 billion in those funds in the first four days they were available. Also this year, TSP open seasons ended, so participants could change enrollment or contributions at any time.

While Congress focused on the costs of disaster assistance in the worst hurricane season ever, it ignored the battle to eliminate the onerous Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision. Those provisions permit Social Security benefits to offset part of Civil Service Retirement System benefits for those eligible for both.

Federal travelers conducting agency business got an 8-cent increase in gas reimbursement, bringing the amount to 48.5 cents a mile. But it will fall to 44.5 cents a mile for 2006.

Surveys showed employees feel they do important work and are generally satisfied with paid vacations, health benefits and alternative work schedules. But few felt satisfied with telework or child care subsidies. Also, few believe that the government properly recognizes high performance, and they don't give high marks to managers. All in all, not much changed. Best wishes for the new year!

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.