House lawmakers are taking steps to try to resolve key pieces of workforce and benefits issues for specific groups of federal employees: interns and first responders.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform targeted two federal workforce issues by looking to expand retirement benefits for disabled federal first responders and create a comprehensive internship center at the Office of Personnel Management.
Expanding the early-career federal pipeline is a priority for some committee members out of several bills reviewed on May 11, but lawmakers still held contentious conversations about the Building the Next Generation of Federal Employees Act.
The legislation, which Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) introduced in December, attempts to overhaul the federal internship program by establishing a center within OPM. The center would oversee all federal internship and fellowship programs.
Among several key goals, the bill would require agencies to appoint internship coordinators, create an online “one-stop shop” for agencies to post and individuals to find internship opportunities, establish a pilot program to recruit individuals from underserved communities and give interns who have completed their service a boost in the federal hiring process, Connolly said.
Along with the internship bill, lawmakers reviewed other key legislation that would expand retirement benefits for disabled federal first responders.
For the Building the Next Generation of Federal Employees Act, Connolly said the end goal is to recruit interns to full-time federal service. That comes as the federal workforce faces hiring challenges with a growing number of retirement-eligible employees.
“It’s aimed at trying to facilitate the broadening of the internship program, systematizing it and using it as an effective recruitment tool, none of which exists today,” Connolly said at the hearing.
More than once, Connolly has pointed to data from the Office of Management and Budget, which shows that 15% of federal workers can retire today, and 30% will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.
Other bills he has sponsored, including a 5.1% pay raise for federal employees, additionally aim to address the broad challenge of recruiting younger federal employees.
He said the internship legislation would help address some challenges of hiring early-career workers.
The contentious discussions centered on an amendment from Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the committee’s ranking member, as well as a separate amendment from Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).
Although neither amendment was added, the committee passed the bill 20 to 15 along party lines.
Comer urged colleagues to oppose the bill, saying that it did not factor in broader recruitment issues for federal agencies.
The bill “tries to put a fresh coat of paint on the front door of federal agencies, but ignores the mess inside,” Comer said.
Comer proposed to amend the bill by requiring pay for all federal interns. But, his amendment additionally removed several key pieces of Connolly’s bill and didn’t pass the committee.
The act, introduced in March, would streamline removal procedures for poorly performing federal employees and revive a version of the now-canceled Schedule F executive order. The committee did not pass it as an amendment to Connolly’s bill.
Hice also said that 4,000 federal internships were paid in 2020, down from 60,000 paid internships in 2010. But he added that the problem to recruit the next generation of federal workers is bigger than just fixing the internship program.
In contrast, many federal organizations, such as the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) support Connolly’s legislation.
“Those who show an interest and aptitude for public service and have successfully completed all required aspects of a qualified federal internship deserve to have that experience work in their favor,” NARFE National President Ken Thomas wrote in a May 11 letter to the committee.
Expanding benefits for federal first responders
Another bill on the table for the committee was the Federal First Responder Fair RETIRE Act, which Connolly introduced. The legislation would let disabled federal first responders, such as firefighters and Customs and Border Protection officers, continue receiving the same retirement benefits that apply to all federal first responders.
Currently, federal law requires federal first responders to retire by age 57, which pushes those workers to put larger portions of their salaries toward retirement.
But this creates a gap for federal first responders who sustain a work-related injury, making them ineligible for retirement under the same system.
The legislation would let disabled first responders stay in the same retirement system if they continue federal service in another department.
The bill provides additional benefits for first responders, similar to the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, which the full House passed that act on May 11. It expands workers’ compensation for certain types of job-sustained illnesses.
Federal organizations such as the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association support the House legislation.
“It is unconscionable to think that because a first responder gets injured in the line of duty, their retirement system should penalize them for their service and sacrifice. The Fair RETIRE Act rectifies this error in the law and provides law enforcement the recognition they have earned after injury,” FLEOA National President Larry Cosme said in a press release on May 11.
The committee unanimously advanced the Federal First Responder Fair RETIRE Act.
Other legislation that the committee considered on May 11 includes adding USPS environmental requirements for its future fleet and adjusting the implementation process for Government Accountability Office recommendations.
The committee passed the Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act, which would require GAO to consolidate all unmet recommendations into one report for congressional leaders.
Additionally, the Ensuring an Accurate Postal Fleet Electrification Act will now head to the full House for a floor vote after the committee passed the bill 20-15.