DOE proposal would reduce employee benefits

Unions join Congress and public in demanding plan review

Under pressure from organized labor, Congress, and the public, the Department of Energy last year suspended a controversial new policy that would end reimbursements to contractors for traditional, defined-benefit pension and comprehensive medical plans. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman ordered the one-year suspension just three weeks after he first announced the new policy. The department had planned on full implementation of the new policy by March 1, 2007.

Under the policy, future DOE contracts would only cover 401(k)-style retirement plans and “market-based” health plans. Because these plans are subject to market swings, they are less reliable than traditional plans. And they often carry a higher cost for employees. The new policy also would restrict active employees and retirees who are covered under existing DOE contracts from making plan improvements.

The DOE claims these changes are needed because rising health care costs and other benefit expenses are hurting its budget. Several Boilermaker contractors are among the companies performing operations and maintenance work for the DOE.

Abe Breehey, the Boilermakers’ assistant director of government affairs, called the suspension “a huge victory for union members employed at DOE facilities.” He said unions were angry that the Bush administration did not even consult them before attempting to implement the new policy.

Members of Congress who challenged the proposal said the DOE did not clear it through the Department of Labor, nor did the department submit the new policy to the public for notice and comment. The one-year suspension will now permit public scrutiny.

The Bush administration has come under repeated fire for its attempts to restrict the rights of federal employees. Just last year, a federal district court judge ruled that the Department of Defense’s new personnel rules “eviscerated collective bargaining rights.” The court prevented the DOD from implementing the new rules.