Hill Faces Challenge to Overhaul Benefit Plans

Posted April 27, 2007 at 5:56pm

With higher pay and new career opportunities luring more legislative branch employees to the private sector, Members and Hill officials are looking at ways to use benefits and other incentives to retain Congressional workers.

But doing so won’t be easy, as each Member office and legislative branch agency maintains a separate policy for pay, paid leave time and benefits such as flextime and student loan reimbursement.

“We have a turnover rate in the entry-level jobs, and we are not able to retain a lot of those employees,” said Dan Beard, the House’s Chief Administrative Officer. “We train them and send them downtown. I think the Members would like to keep those employees.”

The last detailed look at benefits in Member offices can be found in the 2006 House Compensation Study, which polled 141 Congressional offices in July and August 2006 on data such as salaries, medical leave, student loan repayments and recruitment.

According to the study, which is meant to serve as a guide for Member office policy in the 110th Congress, 21 percent of offices said they had a problem with employee turnover. When broken down, most of the positions identified as having such problems were lower-level.

For example, 64.2 percent of offices said they had a problem retaining staff assistants; 47.1 percent of offices said they had a problem keeping on legislative aides; and 42.1 percent said they had difficulty retaining legislative correspondents.

And while higher positions tended to have lower turnover problems, they didn’t escape without some difficulty.

About 27 percent of offices said they had trouble keeping a scheduler, while 22.4 percent of offices had a problem retaining a press secretary or communications director.

The problem isn’t limited to the halls of Congress. At legislative branch appropriations hearings in both chambers this session, heads of the various legislative branch agencies have testified about an increasingly difficult struggle to retain employees.

When Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag testified before the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch on Thursday, for example, he told lawmakers that his staff — mostly made up of employees with advanced degrees — can make much more money in the private sector.

To address that issue, about 91 percent of the agency’s $38 million budget request for fiscal 2008 is for personnel, he said.

“Our ability to continue to recruit people is under some strain,” Orszag said.

But officials point out that most people come to Capitol Hill to do a public service and are aware they won’t be making a fortune. The goal should be to make sure people are treated fairly, officials said.

“We have people who have worked here their entire careers,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. “Wonderful, dedicated people … coming to do a public service. I just think we should do our best to take care of them.”

The overall goal is to make the legislative branch the first choice for people wanting to work in public service, Wasserman Schultz said.

“We don’t want to be the branch of government that is people’s third choice,” she said.

Solid benefit packages could help with that, although such packages vary between offices.

The legislative branch is bound by provisions in the Congressional Accountability Act, which requires up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave each year.

About 80 percent of offices that responded to the 2006 study provide some paid family and medical leave to their employees — meaning about 20 percent of offices do not.

About 92 percent offer paid sick leave.

Of those offices that offer paid sick leave, 45 percent of offices allow it to be rolled over from one year to the next. About 95 percent of offices polled offered annual leave — i.e., vacation time — to employees, with the bulk of offices giving from two to four weeks of time, depending on employee tenure.

About 71 percent of offices allow employees to roll over that leave from one year to the next, and 20 percent of offices let employees roll over their leave to a family and medical leave account.

Since becoming CAO earlier this year, Beard has made it a priority to meet with Members to figure out how best to help those Congressional employees who don’t have any paid leave time.

“Any effort like this is a long-term effort,” Beard said. “I think this is going to take many years to try and improve the situation.”

Part of the problem is that different benefits require different tactics, Beard explained.

Some benefits, such as increasing the amount of money that can be given to employees for student loan reimbursement, likely would happen by upping appropriations figures, Beard said. Other matters could require legislation.

Improved employee benefits already have been labeled as a priority by some in the Senate.

In March, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) introduced the Senate Family Leave Act, which would provide Senate employees with seven weeks of paid leave to recover from giving birth to a child, plus an additional week to care for the baby. (New fathers would get a week of paid leave.)

While there is an overall need to address benefits, it is important that each Member office retains the ability to set its own benefit policies, Wasserman Schultz said.

Part of the reason: Members simply have different needs and priorities for the amount of money they get for their offices.

“Your budget is only so large,” Beard said. “Most Members are tapped.”

Wasserman Schultz added that she has no intention of acting on any uniform policy for Congressional offices. But she has asked Beard and others to look into ways Congress can better help retain its employees, including studying employee pay.

“You don’t want to have inadequate benefits be the driving factor for someone to head out the door,” she said.

(For her part, Wasserman Schultz offers her employees four weeks of paid family and medical leave and after that time allows employees to use their vacation time, according to an aide.)

There are other benefits that could be brought in to help workers, Wasserman Schultz said.

Most Congressional employees lack long-term disability benefits, for example, something commonly afforded to workers in the private sector, Wasserman Schultz said.

“I think it’s something that we really need to look into,” she said.

Beard cautioned that solving the issue is complex and will take years before it is improved. But he added that he is optimistic things can improve.

“I’ve found a great deal of receptivity,” he said.