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Some Defense Travelers Will Have Their Per Diem Rates Cut

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The Defense Department is reducing per diem allowances for employees on extended travel to save money, but several lawmakers and at least one union aren’t happy about it.

The department has proposed that beginning Nov. 1, employees on government travel to one location for more than 30 days receive a flat per diem rate. For each full day during long-term TDY of 31 to 180 days, the rate would be 75 percent of the locality rate (lodging plus meals and incidentals); for travel lasting more than 180 days, it would fall to 55 percent of the locality rate for each full day.

Another change, which requires incidental travel expenses to now include laundry, baggage tips and ATM fees rather than being treated as separate, reimbursable items, took effect on Oct. 1. That new policy also requires certain expenses, including cell phone use, to be treated as “mission-related” rather than “travel-related” and paid for outside the travel system. The incidental expense per diem is $5.

Congress and the Obama administration have told agencies they need to cut travel costs, so it perhaps should not be a surprise that Defense came up with this proposal. Still, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, believe it will erode morale and cause an undue burden on government travelers. It’s also simply unrealistic, given the increased rates of rental housing and at many hotels, they argue.

“The department should not put its workers in a position where they are required to travel for work but have to pay out of pocket for basic necessities,” stated an Oct. 10 letter to Defense Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civilian and Personnel Policy Paige Hinkle-Bowles from 28 House members.

“The department has received the letter from Congress, and will respond promptly and directly to them,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Defense spokesman. “We appreciate their concerns regarding this issue.” Christensen, who did not respond to a question on whether the department might delay the Nov. 1 implementation date for the flat per diem rate pending further consideration, provided more information about the policy changes. The information noted that the commercial lodging industry considers stays over 30 days “extended” and “typically offers reduced rates to ensure occupancy.” The department also is advising Defense travelers to consider staying in furnished apartments or similar types of lodging “which are typically cheaper than room rates in commercial lodging.”

Agencies are obligated to bargain with employee unions over the travel policy changes, though it’s not clear that’s happening within every Defense component. According to a May 15 Powerpoint presentation from the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, other departments have reduced per diem rates for employees on extended travel, indicating there is a precedent on the issue.

But Matthew Biggs, IFPTE legislative and political director said other unions “have not indicated that any other agencies are doing this.” IFPTE represents employees at agencies including Defense, Energy, Justice and NASA.

In fiscal 2015, the maximum standard per diem rate for Defense travelers in the contiguous United States (including lodging, meals and incidentals) is $129. In more expensive areas, such as Washington, D.C., or San Francisco, the per diem rate is higher.

The General Services Administration establishes per diem rates for lodging, meals and incidental expenses in the continental United States. A standard per diem is applied in locations less commonly traveled by federal workers, while nonstandard areas frequently visited are granted individual rates based on the average daily industry rate. Defense sets the per diem rate for travelers overseas, and in non-foreign areas outside the continental United States.

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Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Soundinvestments in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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