Benefits Equalized for Certain House Staff

Posted June 1, 2007 at 5:54pm

The revamped leave guidelines that went into effect on Friday for about 1,200 employees of the House of Representatives are only the beginning of a larger effort by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to create more consistent personnel policies among the four major House officers.

A letter signed by Clerk of the House Lorraine Miller, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard and House Inspector General James Cornell stated the changes made to employee leave and sick leave policies were a way to standardize House operations and “recognize our employees’ needs for a greater life/work balance.”

In a statement on Friday, Pelosi called the harmonization effort a “significant step forward,” adding: “It is commensurate with the ideals of fairness and equity that they must embrace in their roles as officers of the House.”

Traditionally, individual Members govern the specific personnel polices for their individual offices, a practice that has not been affected by the efforts undertaken by the four House officers. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said individual Senate officers (including the Sergeant-at-Arms and Secretary of the Senate) are responsible for the personnel policies of their employees.

Notable enhancements that now apply to employees of the House Sergeant-at-Arms, Clerk of the House, Inspector General and CAO include an increase in vacation days earned based on years of service, less restrictions on the amount of sick leave that may be used to care for a family member, an expansion of the definition of family to include siblings and the ability for employees to carry over up to 280 hours of unused annual leave each year.

The new policies earned praise last week from the Congressional Management Foundation, which studies Congressional workplace practices.

“Having standardized leave policies and something that is more comparable to the private sector is always going to be helpful in employee retention and hiring,” said CMF Executive Director Beverly Bell. “There are benefits in standardization. But the Hill is a unique place in that they can’t operate entirely like the private sector.”

Bell said allowing individual Members to continue to set policies for their own offices still is an important part of how Congress operates.

“In terms of employee turnover and how you want to compensate staff, I think it’s important for Members to determine what’s important to their particular staff and what fits into an office’s strategic plan. But [the Clerk of the House, CAO, Sergeant-at-Arms and Inspector General] are institutional offices. They are not subject to Members being elected every two years, so it’s logical to expect more standardization there.”

Beard said last week the most important component of the new policy is the recognition that all of the House officers can and will work together for the betterment of the institution.

“When I was hired, Speaker Pelosi made it very clear to me she wanted the House to run in the most efficient possible way it could,” said Beard, who as CAO oversees the largest of the four House offices with about 700 employees.

“We ought to have consistent personnel policies, HR policies and we ought to have consistent procurement policies. … So we asked the HR professionals who work for us to sit down and see if it wasn’t possible to reach agreement, and they did reach agreement.”

Beard said leave and sick leave policies were “just the very first issue we’ve taken on. We have lots of other issues that we need to look into.”

He added that in the past “the individual officers had their own fiefdoms and in some cases I am told individual officers didn’t even talk to each other. They had disagreements and personality clashes and things like that. We don’t have that at all. We have a very good working relationship.”

Livingood, who has served as Sergeant-at-Arms for a dozen years, took an equally congratulatory tone. “I am pleased to join my fellow House officers as we roll out these enhancements to our employees’ leave policies,” Livingood said. “This will help us remain competitive, recruit individuals with previous non-federal service and retain our work force.”

An aide to Miller said last week the office had been studying potential improvements that could be made to its employee benefits package since this past fall. It had been several years since any major benefits changes had been implemented in the Clerk’s office, the aide added.

As the new leave policy package went into effect on Friday, it earned praise from unions representing employees of House officers.

“We’re happy with the situation,” said Todd Redlin, who is a shop steward for the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America and also works in the House Recording Studio for the CAO. NABET-CWA Local 31 represents about 35 CAO employees in the recording studio.

“What Mr. Beard is doing is beneficial to our employees,” Redlin said. “When they came down the pike two days ago we were saying, ‘Hey, this is great.’ … This kind of package is an incentive for you to stay here or come here to begin with.”

Redlin added that employees are very interested in seeing which personnel area will be reviewed next by the House officers, adding he had even heard that the Family Medical Leave Act could be up next.

The FMLA is the standard for unpaid leave. Paid leave is left up to individual employers to determine how much to give, if any.

Even among the 535 Members of Congress, some offices have very liberal leave policies, while others are much more strict. A 2006 survey of 141 House offices conducted for the CAO found that 80.2 percent gave an average of 7.6 weeks paid leave for the care of a newborn by a birth parent.

The Secretary of the Senate’s office conducted a similar survey over the same period: 96.2 percent of the 79 offices in that survey gave an average of 6.1 weeks of paid leave.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) recently introduced legislation that seeks to provide Senate employees seven weeks of paid leave to recover after giving birth to a child, plus an additional week to care for the new baby.

Elizabeth Brotherton contributed to this report.