"We took back all the branches of government," said Richard Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "I'm very optimistic for the future. It's going to be a lot better, and I think federal employees will be treated with a lot more dignity and respect."
For many unions, including NFFE and the American Federation of Government Employees, a priority will be reversing recent overhauls of the federal pay system, most notably the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System. While federal unions secured legislation in early 2008 that restored collective bargaining and appeal rights under the pay-for-performance program, many charge that Defense side-stepped the law by making parts of its labor relations rules far too specific, thereby limiting the scope of bargaining.
Federal unions were able to advance legislative provisions in 2007 and 2008 that zeroed out funding for personnel reforms at the Homeland Security Department, a move that forced the agency to withdraw plans for the system. Unions are hoping for similar action on NSPS in the 111th Congress.
"I don't think [enacting] pay for performance should be high up on the agenda of an administration," AFGE President John Gage said. "I always thought that putting it into DoD and DHS was just stupid, given the pressures on DHS as a new department and DoD in fighting two wars."
Meanwhile, another notable win for federal employees came with Congress' approval of pay raises of 3.5 percent for 2008 and 3.9 percent for 2009, figures that were up to 1 percent higher than the raises proposed by the Bush administration.
But National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley stressed that even under Democratic leadership, "there's nothing automatic about [obtaining higher raises]; it's an annual fight."
It's too early to tell how the 2010 federal pay raise will pan out, but if history is a guide, then federal employees should be in line to receive a hike of at least 2.9 percent, according to the third quarter Employment Cost Index released by the Labor Department late last month. Kelley said NTEU will work with Congress to ensure fair compensation for federal employees next year and to close the gap between federal and private sector pay.
On other federal benefits issues, employee groups plan to lobby for legislation that would increase the government's share of health insurance premiums and for a federal contribution to dental and vision plans.
A bill introduced in early 2007 by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., would have increased the portion of premiums covered by the government from 72 percent to 80 percent, thus reducing the burden on Federal Employees Health Benefits Program enrollees, whose premiums will rise an average of 7 percent in 2009.
Beth Moten, legislative director for AFGE, said on Thursday that unions also would push for an overhaul of FEHBP, a program she argues has been run poorly by the Office of Personnel Management. Allowing 9 million current and retired federal employees to enroll in any of 250 plans dilutes their bargaining power with insurance companies, she said.
"The national health insurance issue will take priority, so we're trying to figure out how to dovetail with that," Moten said. One proposal advanced during the campaign was to set up a program similar to FEHBP for the uninsured. "If they use FEHBP as a parallel program or model, we need to make sure our people are being treated right," Moten said.
Jessica Klement, legislative director for the Federal Managers Association, said her group's No. 1 priority will be securing a law that allows workers covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System (generally those hired in 1984 and after) to apply their leftover sick leave toward their retirement annuity. Legislation to grant credit for unused sick leave passed the House in September but later stalled in the Senate.
Janet Kopenhaver, legislative director for Federally Employed Women, said on Wednesday that her group's top priorities will be securing paid parental leave for federal employees and increasing diversity in the Senior Executive Service. "We got both bills through the House and a Senate committee, and we were pretty happy with that," she said. "We have optimistic thoughts about the 111th Congress in moving these bills through."
FEW also will push for a repeal of two provisions in Social Security law -- the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision -- that have a detrimental effect on the retirement incomes of many public employees, Kopenhaver said.
Despite the great challenges the next president and the new Congress will inherit -- including a financial and health care crisis, two wars and security threats -- employee groups and unions said they're hopeful that federal employee issues will receive more visibility than they have in recent years.
"The biggest issue is going to be resources; it's not like President Obama gets to start with a blank piece of paper," Kelley said. "But even with the resource issue as real as it is, I think there are a lot of opportunities to look at where resources can be freed up and better invested in the agencies and in the federal workforce."