Eliminating Time-in-Grade Requirements? Not So Fast

A proposed change to eliminate time-in-grade restrictions for federal employee promotions has been delayed again. The delay may signal the end of this proposal designed to expand pay-for-performance into federal employee promotions rather than the strong bias toward seniority.

In February 2008, we ran an article about a new “pay-for-performance” twist proposed by the Office of Personnel Management.

The proposal was to eliminate the waiting requirement for a promotion to the next grade level.

The Federal Register announcement noted that:

Currently, employees in competitive service General Schedule positions at grades 5 and above must serve 52 weeks in grade before becoming eligible for promotion to the next grade level. Abolishing the restriction would eliminate the 52-week service requirement.

The time-in-grade restrictions were first put into place back in the 1950’s by Mississippi Congressman Jamie Whitten. Congress was concerned that during the Korean War then going on that the bureaucracy would suddenly find many of its employees getting large pay increases as they quickly advanced through federal pay levels. In fact, that had happened during World War II. The restrictions on rapid promotion of federal employees continues to this day as a result of regulatory requirements.

When we asked readers if they were in favor or removing the time-in-grade restrictions, 50% said they were not in favor of the proposal. 53% of those responding did not think the change would result in rewarding the most productive employees. 12% were not sure if the best would be rewarded and only 36% thought the result of rewarding the most productive people would be achieved.

Here is a new twist in the bureaucratic saga. OPM has issued a new Federal Register notice that says, in effect, the agency is no longer sure that the idea it floated last year is a good one. The new rule was supposed to be implemented on March 9, 2009. The implementation date was then extended to May 18, 2009.

On May 11th, a new Federal Register notice appeared. It reads: The “…Office of Personnel Management (OPM) proposes to revoke the final rule, titled Time-in-Grade Rule Eliminated, published in the Federal Register on November 7, 2008, pending OPM’s review and consideration of additional public comments received in response to a March 9, 2009 Federal Register notice which extended the final rule’s effective date.OPM also proposes to extend the final rule’s effective date for an additional 90 days, from May 18, 2009 until August 16, 2009, to avoid the unnecessary expense of allowing a rule to take effect that may later be amended or revoked….”

In effect, what is going on is that the agency is probably not going to implement the change that it proposed to make in 2008 or, at a minimum, give the new administration a chance to make sure this is what the new leadership really wants to do.

The proposed change would have placed more importance on performance rather than seniority. In effect, it was an effort to extend the pay-for-performance concept into employee promotions and to use performance as the major factor in promotion decisions rather than how long a person has been in a job.

The National Treasury Employees Union has been opposed to the proposal as it does not like the idea of giving agency managers more decision-making authority on promotions.

The comment period for OPM’s proposal to revoke the final rule will close on June 10, 2009. You can make a comment on the proposal by email if you wish to do so. E-mail: employ@opm.gov. Include “RIN 3206-AL18, Time in Grade” in the subject line of the message.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47