Bureaucratic Kerfuffle: Smoke and Heat on Changing Time in Grade Restrictions But No Changes

There have been several Federal Register notices, proposed rule extensions, numerous comments from interested parties, and probably much wringing of hands within OPM on a proposal to eliminate time in grade restrictions. The final result: No changes.

Back in February 2008, we published an article about OPM proposing to eliminate time in grade restrictions. (See New Pay for Performance Twist Coming to Your Agency)

The proposal was something of a surprise to some in the federal community. Since the initial Federal Register announcement, a lot has happened, including new management at the Office of Personnel Management. But, despite the hoopla, several Federal Register notices, and probably consternation among various groups, the proposal will not become effective after all.

In effect, you can ignore all the back and forth that has gone on during the past 18 months or so as nothing has changed after all.

Here is some of the history of this bureaucratic kerfuffle.

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 Whitten Amendment expired in 1978. Before it expired, Congress asked the Civil Service Commission (now called OPM) what would happen when the amendment expired. According to the Federal Register notice issued last year: “The Commission reported that the time-in-grade restriction for competitive service GS positions had been placed in regulation and would continue even if the Whitten Amendment expired. The law expired September 14, 1978, and time in grade continues in regulation for competitive service GS positions.”

In 2008, OPM apparently concluded that the time-in-grade restrictions are no longer necessary. A new rule was issued to implement the elimination of time in grade restrictions to become effective March 9, 2009. (See Faster Promotions Coming for Some Federal Employees) The March 9th date came and went but the implementation was delayed while the new management at OPM considered their options.

A survey of our readers in February 2008 revealed a reaction that was probably surprising to some: Most people wanted to keep the restrictions even though it would have allowed some employees to get more pay as they would not have to wait for a pay raise. (See Readers Favor Retaining Time-in-Grade Restrictions for Promotions)

The results of the survey displayed an inherent lack of trust in the federal human resources system, or, perhaps, a desire to protect the employees who have been working in government for the longest time. 50% of those responding were against removing the time-in-grade restrictions. 45% were in favor of removing the restrictions and 6% were undecided.

In May of 2009, OPM proposed to dump the rule altogether (See Eliminating Time-in-Grade Requirements? Not So Fast) As we noted in that article, 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.

Now, OPM has issued a “final rule” in the Federal Register. In short, “The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is withdrawing the final rule, titled Time-in-Grade Elimination, published in the Federal  Register on November 7, 2008. After carefully considering all of the  comments OPM has determined that it would be more productive to  consider the merits of the time-in-grade issue as part of a more comprehensive review of pay, performance, and staffing issues than to regulate this particular issue in piecemeal fashion.”

The result, at least at the moment, is to keep the existing system in place. OPM’s director John Berry has commented that a goal is to implement some kind of pay for performance system. That may come to pass. But, if it occurs under the Obama administration, it will probably mean that any system change such as this that occurs will be done with the agreement of at least some of the federal employee unions.

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