WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) today spoke on the Senate floor to challenge a provision of the Postal reform bill.  The provision would harm workers who were injured on the job by making significant changes to the federal workers’ compensation program, known as FECA, not just within the postal service, but across the entire federal government.  

Senator Akaka urged his colleagues to support an amendment he introduced that would strike the government-wide FECA provisions and replace them with common-sense bipartisan reforms already approved by the House that would improve efficiency and integrity without reducing benefits.  He also responded to concerns raised by the main proponent of the underlying provision, Senator Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), who spoke following his speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Senator Akaka’s amendment 2034 to the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012 is cosponsored by Senators Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Patty Murray (D-Washington), Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).  Senator Akaka’s amendment is expected to receive a vote tomorrow.  
Video of Senator Akaka’s floor speech is available here.

Senator Akaka’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

     Mr. President, I rise to discuss my amendment 2034 regarding Federal workers’ compensation — which is cosponsored by nine Senators, including Senators Inouye, Harkin, Murray, Franken, Leahy, Shaheen, Kerry, Lautenberg and Brown of Ohio.  I have serious concerns with the provisions of the Postal Reform bill that would make changes to the federal workers’ compensation program, known as FECA, not just within the postal service, but across the entire government.  

     These provisions would cut benefits to elderly disabled employees and eliminate a supplement for dependents.  Many who are already injured would have their benefits cut retroactively.  This is particularly unfair, because most employees affected by these far-reaching cuts are not even postal employees – many are Defense and State Department employees injured supporting missions overseas, federal law enforcement officers and firefighters injured saving lives, or prison guards attacked by inmates.  

     The sponsors of this bill argue that changes to workers’ compensation must be included in this legislation to place the Postal Service on a sound financial footing.  However, the fact is that the changes would have very little effect on the Postal Service’s deficit.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, these changes would actually cost the Postal Service an additional $21 million in the first three years.    
     Any changes to benefits for those injured in service to their country should be done in a careful, comprehensive manner.  There are complex issues that deserve more analysis before we simply cut benefits people have planned for, and depend on.  
     At a hearing I held last July, witnesses raised serious concerns with reducing FECA benefits, especially at retirement age.  They testified that disabled employees may not be able to save enough in time for a reduction in income because they missed out on wage growth, Social Security, and the Thrift Savings Plan.  Because of this disadvantage, the Federal government – like most states – provides benefits that last as long as the injury, even if that is past the normal retirement age.       
     At the request of a bipartisan group of members from the House Committee on Education and Workforce, the Government Accountability Office is currently reviewing both pre- and post-retirement age FECA benefits to determine fair benefit amounts.  Acting on this proposal now without waiting for GAO’s analysis is irresponsible — as a result we may set benefit levels too low, seriously harming disabled employees, or too high, taking funding away from other priorities.  We must be extremely cautious not to make arbitrary cuts to benefits that could have serious detrimental effects on elderly disabled employees. 

     Last November, the House passed a Republican-led, bipartisan FECA reform bill, H.R. 2465, by voice vote.  The bipartisan sponsors of this bill chose not to make any changes to benefits without more information on appropriate benefit levels.  I believe their actions were correct and the Senate should enact similar legislation by passing my amendment.  

     My amendment would strike the government-wide FECA provisions in this bill and replace them with the House-passed FECA reform bill, which makes a number of common-sense reforms that will improve program efficiency and integrity without reducing benefits.  Among other things, my amendment contains program integrity measures recommended by the Inspector General at the Department of Labor, the Government Accountability Office, and the Administration that will save taxpayers money.  

     My amendment would also update benefit levels for funeral costs and disfigurement that have not been increased since 1949.  And it would protect civilian employees serving in dangerous areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan by giving them more time to file a claim and making sure injuries from terrorism are covered even if the employee is off-duty.

     Everyone understands that the Postal Service is in the midst of a serious financial crisis that must be addressed.  However, breaking our promises to injured federal employees to save the Postal Service just a tiny fraction of its deficit is wrong.  I urge my colleagues to support my amendment.

Following Senator Akaka’s remarks, Senator Collins rose to speak in opposition to his amendment.  Senator Akaka then delivered the following response. 

Videos of Senator Akaka’s response are available here: PART 1, PART 2.

 Senator Akaka’s response as prepared for delivery is copied below:

     I would like to address a number of statements that my good friend Senator Collins has made about the FECA provisions in this bill.  First, it has been argued that these changes are necessary to save the postal service money.  However, since most employees affected by these cuts are not postal employees, the savings expected from these changes would have very little effect on the Postal Service’s deficit.  In fact, according to CBO, these changes would actually cost the Postal Service an additional $21 million in the first three years.   

     In addition, it has been said on the floor that FECA recipients over retirement age get 26 percent more income than similar employees who work their entire career and retire under the normal retirement systems.  This statistic comes from a recent GAO report that looked at only a small sample of non-postal workers eligible for CSRS retirement.  

     In fact, according to GAO, their recent report only examines eight percent of the active federal workforce and does not even look at postal service workers.  Cuts should not be made to FECA benefits until GAO completes a more comprehensive study, now underway, which examines the impact of benefit reductions on FERS participants. 

     The Federal workers’ compensation program – like most state programs – allows injured workers to continue receiving compensation as long as the injury lasts, even if that is past normal retirement age.  This is necessary because disabled workers on FECA do not earn Social Security credit and cannot participate in the Thrift Savings Plan, and they miss out on normal wage growth.  We must make them whole for their injuries by making up for lost wages and the inability to save for retirement.

     It is simply not the case that workers over retirement age who still receive FECA benefits are somehow scamming the system.  In fact, in 1974, Congress repealed an earlier statute to allow a reduction at age 70.  Congress cited concerns about the hardship the reductions caused on senior citizens, as well as concerns about age discrimination when repealing the past, less severe version of this legislation.  No matter a person’s age, they have every right to that benefit.

     I agree that we should be taking a closer look at ways to prevent fraud and abuse in this program, but reducing benefits for people at retirement age has nothing to do with reducing fraud.  My amendment allows the Department of Labor to obtain wage data from the Social Security Administration – this will help prevent fraud.  

     It has been argued that these cuts bring the FECA program more in line with the state programs.  However, most state programs have no benefit reductions for recipients at retirement age.  In fact, 33 state programs do not reduce benefits at any age.   At our subcommittee hearing last July, the minority requested witness stated that these states seem to have no interest in cutting benefits for senior citizens.

     Finally, proponents of these cuts have emphasized repeatedly that these provisions are very similar to an Obama Administration proposal. This was actually a Bush administration proposal that the Obama administration simply kept in place.  More importantly, this bill cuts benefits more deeply than that proposal, and most concerning — unlike the Administration proposal — this bill would apply reductions retroactively to many employees who already have been injured. 
     Moreover, the Department of Labor has admitted that the changes to benefit amounts in the their proposal were round numbers based on rough calculations – I believe that is hardly the basis to determine what elderly disabled people will have to live on for the rest of their lives.

     We simply do not have the information we need to decide on fair benefit levels and should wait for the more extensive GAO study now underway.  Breaking our promises to injured federal employees to save the Postal Service a tiny fraction of its deficit is not the solution.  My amendment 2034 offers a reasonable alternative by replacing the FECA provisions in this bill with the bipartisan FECA reform bill that passed the House by voice vote last year.  The House chose not to make benefit cuts without the additional information they sought from GAO, and we should follow their lead.  

     This amendment would make common sense reforms that will improve program efficiency and integrity without reducing benefits and I urge my colleagues to support it.