WASHINGTON -- Federal employees in so-called shortage positions soon may be able to pursue an academic degree at their employers' expense.
A new OPM policy, effective June 6, allows federal agencies to pay educational expenses "when it is necessary to recruit or retain employees in occupations where actual or anticipated shortages exist."
Most shortages are in medical, technical or other scientific fields that require highly specialized training, although an agency can subsidize training for any position it feels is necessary. Only employees already in shortage positions will be eligible.
Employees may receive aid to help them qualify for a higher level shortage position or to enhance their performance in their current job.
Marylanders are likely to benefit disproportionately by the new rule because so many are employed at national laboratories and scientific and space-related facilities.
An agency may allow an employee to attend school during work hours, but such arrangements must take "cost-effectiveness" into account, an OPM news release said.
"It's theoretically possible that someone will go to school 20 hours a week and work 20 hours, but that's generally unlikely," said Michael W. Orenstein, an OPM spokesman. A more probable arrangement would involve one or two night classes per week, with perhaps one or two hours taken off from work, he said.
In a precedent-setting decision that could have ramifications for all Department of Veterans Affairs professionals, a U.S. district judge last week ruled that a DVA nurse who was fired from her job has the same rights to arbitration as other federal workers.
DVA professionals, known formally as Title 38 employees, have not had grievance and arbitration rights since 1981, when the Health Care Reform Act exempted them from coverage of some provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act.
Judge Stanley Sporkin of the U.S. District Court in Washington said the DVA was "arbitrary and capricious" in its decision to fire an Ohio nurse who was vice president of her union local.
Judge Sporkin said in his ruling that the nurse, Joan L. Stephens, "may well have been someone management was desirous of terminating for her union activities."
Ms. Stephens was represented by her union, the American Federation of Government Employees.
Judge Sporkin found that DVA's dismissal of Ms. Stephens was reviewable by the courts under the Administrative Procedures Act. Previously, DVA's internal review process was the last resort for Title 38 employees.
Ruling that Ms. Stephens' dismissal was "not supported by substantial evidence," Judge Sporkin remanded the case to the DVA for reconsideration.
"The judge could just as easily have overturned the entire case without bothering to send it back to the agency," said Diane Witiak, an AFGE spokeswoman. "But he may just be letting [DVA] do the right thing [by] sending it back to them and saying 'Here, fix this -- you really screwed up.' "
Sex chapter restored:
After a highly publicized brouhaha last month, enrollees in the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan will soon be mailed information on birth control that was censored from a Blue Cross-Blue Shield health book.
Curt Smith, an Office of Personnel Management associate director, decided in April to pull the six-page chapter from the book "Taking Care of Your Children," which was sent free to about 275,000 families around the country.
The chapter, "Adolescent Sexuality: Preventing Unwanted Consequences," contains no illustrations or explicit language. It deals almost exclusively with different methods of birth control and urges parents to talk to their children about sex. Mr. Smith said in April the chapter was removed because "we didn't want to offend anybody."
A source close to the issue who did not want to be identified said the decision to mail the chapter to parents was made by OPM director Constance Berry Newman. Ms. Newman was not aware that the chapter had been removed until after the fact, the source said.
Enrollees in the plan who received the book can expect to receive the expurgated chapter in mid-June. A notice will be printed on the outside, warning of the nature of the enclosed material.