Rob Sperling earns a healthy salary as acting communications director for the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. But, until now, when he was called up to serve his country in the Air Force Reserve, Sperling's pay could drop by as much as one-third.
A new law fixes that.
Federal employees who saw their income drop when they were called up for National Guard or reserve duty will now receive salary supplements to make up the difference, beginning with the pay period that started March 15.
The Office of Personnel Management announced the policy April 3 after Congress made it law last month with the passage of the 2009 omnibus appropriations bill.
Guard and reserve advocates, such as retired Marine Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, said the change is long overdue.
Private businesses such as Lockheed Martin, Sears and Ford Motors have made up the difference in pay for their activated employees for years.
"The federal government should be a model employer," McCarthy said. "The fact that the government is doing it is great, but they're late coming to the game."
However, the amount of supplemental payments is not yet clear. OPM will count locality pay and special rate supplements when determining employees' basic federal pay. But OPM and the Defense Department still must decide which military pays and allowances to include when determining military income. And those allowances — such as for housing — could affect the payment amounts considerably.
An estimated 175,000 to 217,000 federal employees serve in the Guard or reserve, ROA says. But it's unclear how many earn less on active duty than in civilian life and will benefit from this new change.
"The statistics on this question have always been very elusive," McCarthy said.
A Government Accountability Office report in 2003 said 41 percent of Guard and reserve members lose pay when called up to active duty.
In the past, federal employees could use up to 15 days of military leave per year to receive their full compensation when performing Guard or reserve duty, and an additional 22 days if called up to support civilian authorities during a domestic disaster. But after that, activated federal employees earned only their military salary, until now.
And only a few civilian employees who served in the reserve components were eligible for partial income replacement before this new rule was issued.
Under the Pentagon's 3-year-old Reserve Income Replacement Program, Guard and reserve members who were federal employees and whose military income when mobilized was at least $50 a month less than their civilian wages could earn up to $3,000 per month in extra pay when called up.
But that program had strict rules on how much continuous service was required before someone could qualify for extra payments, which greatly limited the number of people eligible.
The new OPM program has no requirements on mobilization time, and no limits on the amount of extra pay.
The Pentagon and Office of Management and Budget did not have estimates for how much the new supplemental pay rule might cost the government. GAO's 2003 report said the Congressional Budget Office estimated that making up the pay differential for activated federal employees would cost about $201 million over a six-year period.
But Guard and reserve advocates say that expense is necessary to ensure troops don't worry about financial problems at home when deployed.
"If you're in a fire base in Afghanistan, the mission requires 100 percent focus," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the U.S. "If your wife needs to get a job and leaves your kids at home, or [you worry about] making the rent or paying the mortgage, it's hard to keep focused."
Sperling, a captain, usually gets temporary assignments when he is activated, typically to fill in for others. And he does not expect to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan soon. But if he were deployed for a long stretch and did not receive a pay supplemental, he said his family probably would have to dip into savings to make ends meet.
"We've put away enough to last that period of time, but it's still a stressful thought to consider," Sperling said. He and his wife might have had to suspend payments to their 2-year-old daughter's college fund if he were deployed without a supplemental.
"A lot of people have faced incredible hardships with major deployment operations," Sperling said. "It's great … to have the support of our agency heads."