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Collins' bill is a good start, but it needs work

As the 112th Congress gets underway, the NALC’s legislative goals remain firm. We continue to seek legislation that allows the U.S. Postal Service to use the pension surpluses in both the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) to fully fund the Service’s retiree health benefit account. We are asking Congress to repeal the burdensome mandate included in the 2006 postal reform bill that requires the USPS to pre-fund that retiree health benefit account to the tune of $5.5 billion a year—an onerous obligation not shared by any other corporation or government agency. And we continue to push for legislation that requires the continuation of six-day mail delivery service.

On Feb. 15, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee—the committee that has oversight of the Postal Service—introduced S. 353, the Postal Service Improvements Act of 2011. Essentially, this is the same bill she brought forward last year, a measure expired at the end of 2010.

Some of Collins’ provisions in S. 353 mirror many of the NALC’s legislative objectives. However, the bill also includes a number of provisions that the union cannot support.

Among the measure’s positive points is an up-front call for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to recalculate the amount of the surplus retirement funds in the Postal Service’s account in CSRS and to allow the Service to transfer that surplus—which her bill estimates is between $50 billion and $55 billion—into the Postal Retiree Health Benefit Fund. Additionally, the bill calls for allowing the OPM to use surplus money in the Service’s FERS account—nearly $3 billion—to pay down debt or to fund the USPS’ workers’ compensation liability.

While those are good starts toward solving the Postal Service’s financial problems, there are unfortunately two key provisions in the bill that prevent the NALC from throwing our full support behind it.

One section of the Collins’ measure requires postal interest arbitration panels to consider the Postal Service’s financial health when rendering decisions about collective bargaining agreements, a provision that, if passed, would put a thumb on the scale in management’s favor during contract negotiations. Further, such a management advantage is completely unnecessary because the financial situation of both parties is always presented during arbitration hearings, and to claim otherwise is nonsense. Besides, any arbitrator worth his or her salt—especially one agreed to by both the NALC and the USPS—considers every single exhibit and piece of evidence presented during arbitration proceedings before rendering a decision.

Another of the bill’s provisions concerns federal employees who draw workers’ compensation benefits—including postal employees—. S. 353 calls for converting those workers over to retirement benefits when they reach the appropriate age, if their workers’ compensation benefits end up exceeding their regular annuity payments. (This language was also included in Federal Workers’ Compensation Reform bill Collins introduced Feb. 4.)

One of the NALC’s primary concerns with this provision is that fails to take into account the loss of regular retirement benefits under CSRS and FERS that would be suffered by Federal Employee Compensation Act (FECA) recipients who get separated from the Postal Service. Such injured workers get no years-of-service credit over the period of their injuries once they are separated, since their annuities are based on their high-3 average salaries at the time of their separation, not at the time of regular retirement.

This potential loss of retirement income is compounded for FECA recipients covered by CSRS since those employees are unable to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan or to accrue benefits under Social Security—both of which make up two-thirds of the retirement package earned by FERS employees.

“We thank our long-time friend, Senator Collins, for taking steps to help keep the Postal Service solvent for many years to come,” Rolando said. “While the NALC can support some of the provisions in S. 353, we need to keep working with her and all of our friends in Congress to take out or amend other provisions in her bill before we can give it our full backing.”