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Bereavement leave for feds, a new ‘digital corps,’ and more highlights from House NDAA

With Congress passing it every year for the last six decades, the annual defense authorization bill has become a bit of a grab-bag of sorts for members looking for a relatively easy vehicle to address other legislative priorities.

The upcoming year’s defense policy bill is no different, and the most recent House draft includes a wide variety of changes and updates important to civilian federal employees.

The House passed its version of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act late last month.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has completed work on its own draft of next year’s NDAA, but the full chamber hasn’t considered amendments or taken up the full legislation.

With little time left in the year, House and Senate leaders will likely start discussing the differences between the two versions and reach a conference agreement that can pass both chambers.

Federal employees have scored significant benefits through recent defense policy bills. The 2020 NDAA brought most federal workers paid parental leave for the first time, and the 2021 authorization expanded those benefits to the rest workforce.

Federal employees won’t find proposals on that scale in the upcoming year’s defense policy bill. But the House-passed NDAA does contain a few nuggets for the federal workforce.

The House-passed version, for example, establishes parental bereavement as a specific reason for which federal employees could take paid leave.

The amendment from Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) simply allows federal employees to use paid parental leave to grieve the death of a son or daughter.

Another provision would clarify that civilian federal employees who also serve as members of the District of Columbia National Guard are entitled to leave during their mobilization — without losing pay or time.

The change would apply prospectively. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton say the provision is intended to correct a “longstanding error.”

Here are a few other highlights.

New benefits for federal wildland firefighters

A few proposals in the House-passed defense policy bill are aimed at improving working conditions for federal wildland firefighters.

One amendment would establish a housing stipend for federal wildland firefighters who live more than 50 miles away from their deployment location. The Interior and Agriculture secretaries would be responsible for determining those allowances based on the cost of living in the area.

A second amendment would create a new mental health program for federal firefighters, with professionals trained on the particular challenges facing the wildland workforce providing services.

It would also grant federal firefighters up to seven consecutive days of paid leave each calendar year “for the purposes of maintaining mental health,” the legislation reads. Wildland firefighters could use this leave any time between June 1 and Oct. 31, and unused days would expire at the end of each year.

Both Congress and the Biden administration in recent months have been giving more public attention to the challenges that federal firefighters face. Congress, for example, included more funding for federal firefighter salaries, plus additional funding to convert more temporary firefighters to permanent employees, in the Senate-passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Reps. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and Katie Porter and Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) are the lead cosponsors behind both proposals.

The probationary period debate continues

House Democrats again included a provision in the next year’s NDAA that would shorten the probationary period for civilian employees at the Defense Department.

Currently, new hires at DoD must spend two years successfully working at the department until they can, for example, access their rights to appeal a disciplinary action with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

All other federal employees are subject to a one-year probationary period.

But in an effort to perhaps test the concept of a longer trial period for the federal workforce, Congress adopted a two-year probationary period for DoD civilian employees in the 2016 NDAA.

Since then, House Democrats have made multiple, but unsuccessful, attempts to change it back.

In 2020, Congress directed an external study of the effects and impacts of the two-year probationary period for DoD civilian employees, including a demographic analysis of those who were fired before completing their trial period at the department.

Federal employee organizations are mixed on this particular topic. Unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees and National Federation of Federal Employees, have applauded the push to get rid of the “unnecessarily long” two-year probationary period, as NFFE described it.

But the Federal Managers Association disagrees, arguing Congress should at least wait until the Pentagon, lawmakers and other stakeholders can evaluate the results of the study.

“The study ordered by Congress will provide a wealth of information and data that will be useful for making future decisions regarding the probationary period,” FMA National President Craig Carter said in a recent statement. “However, the study has not been completed, submitted to Congress or analyzed. It would therefore be irresponsible and illogical, costly and wasteful for Congress to take premature action related to the DoD probationary period until after the results of the study are released, with evidence and data determining if the probationary period should be altered or not.”

This provision will likely earn more debate as House and Senate leadership work to develop a consensus defense policy bill that can pass both chambers later this year.

A new digital corps within GSA

Congress is renewing its push to inject more cybersecurity talent into the federal workforce, this time with a reserve-style program that would allow tech talent to serve in short stints.

A large bipartisan group of House members is behind this provision, which would establish a new program within the General Services Administration known as the National Digital Reservist Corps.

Reservists would come from the private sector, and they’d serve on relatively short, 30-day stints at federal agencies who need digital, cybersecurity and other IT expertise. They’ll sign on to serve on one of these 30-day stints at least once a year for three years, according to the legislation.

GSA has a year to begin recruiting new digital reservists to the program. The GSA administrator would be responsible for activating and deactivating reservists based on agencies’ needs and setting members’ pay and compensation.

“The administrator may assign active reservists to address the digital and cybersecurity needs of executive agencies, including cybersecurity services, digital education and training, data triage, acquisition assistance, guidance on digital projects, development of technical solutions and bridging public needs and private sector capabilities,” the provision reads.

The legislation caps reservist pay at a rate equal to that of a GS-15, including any applicable locality adjustments.

Congress has considered a wide variety of legislative ideas in the past that were intended to bring in private sector tech talent to agencies struggling with cybersecurity and other IT initiatives.

In its recommendations to Congress, the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service suggested lawmakers create a reserve of individuals with special skills, particularly those with cyber and tech expertise, who can volunteer with the military when certain circumstances arise.

The Office of Personnel Management once proposed the creation of an industry exchange program, which would have allowed federal employees to temporarily work at private sector companies as a way to gain new skills in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field. In return, private sector employees would have temporarily lent their expertise to federal agencies, but the proposal never got off the ground.

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) is the lead cosponsor behind the National Digital Reservist Corps legislation.

The National Digital Reservist Corps is different from the U.S. Digital Corps, an initiative GSA announced in late August. That initiative is geared toward entry-level tech talent, and it’s designed to give undergraduates and recent graduates two-year stints as federal employees.

At last, a digital Plum Book?

The House also included the PLUM Act in next year’s defense policy bill, which Democrats have described as an effort to shed more light on the political appointees filling prominent roles in the executive branch.

The measure technically folds together two bills, one from House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), and another from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Together, the provisions would require the Office of Personnel Management to publish and maintain an active roster of political appointees online.

It would also require OPM to work with the White House Office of Presidential Personnel to make a summary of demographic data available for those appointees.

Currently, OPM works with the House and Senate oversight committees to publish a list of political appointees, known as the “Plum Book,” once every four years. But the information is only up to date at the time OPM and the committees compile and publish the list; it isn’t a real-time account detailing when appointees come and go or move into new positions.

The PLUM Act amendment would get agencies closer to such a real-time account. The measure requires OPM and agencies update the names and titles regularly.

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