Feds Gave Employees 127,000 Cash Bonuses

Ever since we first heard about the FDA's plan to buy gift cards to "incent" hard working employees to keep them, well, working hard, we wanted to know more.

You may recall that the FDA deal involved the purchase of 160 "employee incentive gift cards" worth $250 each. The contract was worth $41,030. (Yes, when you do the math, it appears that the contractor got about $6.44 for each card delivered.)

We learned from the acting FDA administrator that about 15 percent of all agency employees received a gift card last year. Acting FDA Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein knew that because he himself said he was trying to find more detail about the program, which he suspended pending a review.

Now the Office of Personnel Management is adding some new -- incomplete but compelling -- details about the gift cards and other forms of informal employee bonuses, including cash payments.

It seems that OPM keeps no data about the gift cards or other kinds of bonuses. That's interesting to us.

But they do have information about cash bonuses, also known vividly as on-the-spot awards. According to the OPM data, federal agencies gave out 127,030 cash awards in the year that ended in October.

We'll repeat that: Federal managers gave out up to $250 in cash to employees 127,030 times in fiscal 2008. That's potentially worth up to $32 million in tax dollars.

So. We'd like to note that our curiosity about all this is growing. How are these bonuses handled? Who decides who deserves the money? What's the process for keeping track of it? Is it fair? Does it work? Do some employees get multiple bonus cards or cash payments?

It's worth repeating that we know many people in the federal government are not paid enough for all the good work they do. At the same time, we believe that money minus oversight equals mischief.

This isn't by any means big money, but it offers an unusual peek into the federal system.

Please let us know what you know.

By Robert O'Harrow |  May 28, 2009; 5:18 PM ET
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Ok but what are you after? Your oversight sounds a lot like you want to set up a new Dept of Homeland Spot Bonus Oversight. Don't look now Congress is setting up a new Government Employee Spot Bonus Committee. Your questions could cost us billions.
This one should be left alone. Employees federal and private are being overworked and underpaid.
I bet most of them were given the bonuses this time last year when gas was nearly $4 a gallon. Most of them needed the money just to get home and back to work for the week.

Not a federal employee but I know some.

Posted by: Weave160 | May 29, 2009 12:04 AM

Now if only we can convince Wall Street to give out $250 bonuses (instead of the multi-million $$$ ones)!

Posted by: upsetinVA | May 29, 2009 8:56 AM

I'm sorry...but this sounds like Mr. O'Harrow is at a serious loss of things to do with his time. Some $250 bonuses are given out to employees, and you want to know the minutest criteria used in determining who gets them?

I'm thinking that if you recived a bonus of any sort from the Post it was greatly undeserved!

Posted by: vagaf31 | May 29, 2009 10:55 AM

Thank you previous posters. I agree that Mr. O'Harrow needs to find a more compelling topic. Each one of these cash awards are taxed. So the government is getting a lot of that money back anyway. Why should government employees not be offered similar benefits of the corporate world? $250 is a negligible amount to award someone. Especially when that person sees about half that once the taxes are removed. As far as who gives them out, as in the corporate world, managers, executives, etc are the ones evaluating their employees and deciding who is deserving or not for a bonus. In our agency, each organization or office gets a pot of money that they can allocate to bonuses, cash awards, etc. They only have so much to spend and it usually is very little. This prevents excessive awards and extremely high sums of cash. These bonuses and awards must be then justified to those exectives above our bosses. Again, we are focusing on the wrong thing. Waste is seen everywhere in the government and yet here is Mr. O'Harrow trying to focus and find fault with one of the good things that is going on. Not every government employee makes large sums of money. These bonuses are very helpful and welcomed by hard-working people.

Posted by: coastalisis | May 29, 2009 11:54 AM

I am curious how a gift card bonus is part of a person's income. I would think that if the government was looking to tax the gift card as income then they would have records enough to settle the issues raised in the opinion.

I honestly believe that the employees probably deserved a far greater bonus, but just like corporate america... why are 'we the people' spending money on bonuses when 'we the people' are out money? I could see doing this if 'we the people' were living with in our collective budget but we are not!

It is time for a balanced budget that addresses how to paying off our debt within 30 years... just like the rest of us have to.

Posted by: Soletsgetthisstraight | May 29, 2009 12:23 PM

I am a Federal employee, I live and work in Seattle. In the 8 years I've been employed with the Department of Health and Human Services, I have seen 1 person get a cash gift of less than $200. Trust me, she worked her butt off too. I don't want a cash gift card, I want the promotion I have worked hard for and have earned. Promotions are extremely few and far between. I am tired of being the lowest paid with the highest work load while watching the majority of my colleagues draw triple digit annual salaries who can't/won't do a minimum amount of work. If Mr. O'Harrow would like to investigate this issue, I say bring it on!!!

Posted by: maralyn33 | May 29, 2009 12:35 PM

I applaud you maralyn33! I know, first hand, what you are talking about. And, to Mr. O'Harrow Jr.; if you really want an issue to investigate that will get most of our blood pumping, how about trying to find out how OPM can get away with miscalculating so many annuities; making the annuitants pay the money back no matter what the hardship it causes, while they refuse to pay them what OPM owes them during the mixup. Now THAT is a great story!

Posted by: gijanedoe48 | May 29, 2009 3:01 PM

This issue will benefit from the discussion initiated. For many years we have heard 'run government like business'. Now when business-like practices for rewarding enployees are utilized there is potential criticism because perhaps the criteria are not uniform and precise, or because recognizing individual performance might result in disparate treatment. As a manager in non-federal government I utilized a small cash reward system in which managers and supervisors were necessarily given the responsibility to make a judgement call. The process was not precise but it worked toward the goal of providing small on-the-spot rewards for outstanding work. It wasn't much but it was greatly appreciated by employees who earn their dollars the old fashioned way. They work very hard for their money mostly because they are committed to the work they perform in the public interest. Those who excel according to the assessment of their supervisor should be rewarded at least in the modest way reported by the article.

Posted by: dwwilco11 | May 29, 2009 8:48 PM

Interesting article but you need to take a hard look at the awards over at TSA. Significant disparity not to mention a total lack of consistency on how the award process works at TSA. An even more pressing issue that needs to be closely examined is the Rehired Annuitant Program within the DoD, particularly, the DoD IG investigative unit known as DCIS. Complete joke that they have the authority to hire back retired annuitants to work investigstions when the case loads of current employees is so low. Real scam and you will see for yourself once you begin a probe. Former supervisors vacate the annuitant positions (isn't that a surprise). Once you complete this task, move over to the DoD's Iraq reconstruction investigative unit (Special IG). You will be shocked at what you learn. I look forward to you writing about these issues.

Posted by: jtc75 | May 30, 2009 8:12 PM

Unfortunately maralyn33 sounds like sour grapes. If you truly have worked hard and applied yourself you would have been promoted. And trust when I say you have NO TRUE idea what is given out for cash awards. When someone get an award they are not supposed to talk about it. Just like you are not supposed to discuss your pay.

Posted by: mariealvey | June 1, 2009 7:45 AM

Gift cards are nice, if the employees use them - a lot are forgotten, creating a lot of loss to the Government. Last year, the cash awards were sporadic - and most of us who were eligible to receive them DIDN'T. Now they are being held up in our Human Resources group. Not talk about them? - you jest! They are not given out for exceptional work but more often for those who "kiss up". The whole system needs to be revamped and for OPM to have no records regarding awards is unbelievable! No wonder it is such a mess. There were supposedly changes made to the FDA process for cash awards, but some of us are still getting nothing because of a Human Resources glitch. What a system!

Posted by: pmaley | June 1, 2009 8:52 AM

i worked for fema for fifteen years and ten months before retirement. someone compiled a stat that said 85-90% of the performance award money went to management. apparently someone who was a manager could be doing an excellent job even if the staff was doing average jobs. when my boss didn't like me, she gave credit to someone else for my work. how else would you expect 'a dumping ground for political turkeys' to operate? i expect the rest of the fed to run about the same way.

Posted by: david_weinstock | June 1, 2009 8:55 AM

You can not compare a government job with a private sector job period. The government job has more benefits, retirement and job security than any other employer. Taxpayers should not have to pay for these incentive bonuses. As a retired government employee I know the facts. Wake up America.

Posted by: charlie448 | June 1, 2009 9:13 AM

maralyn33 is correct! There is disparity in the government. The on-the-spot awards just go to keep the grumbling down. While the lowest paid among us get paid the least... I too am tired of all my Senior level "make work" collegues getting a promotion when I am being told the budget is flat!

Charlie448 did you retire under the old fed system? That golden parachute you may have gotten under that system does not apply to people who came in less than 23 years ago! When I retire I will have to leave more on the table than people under the old system and I am 36 with 20 years of service so far!

Posted by: ENuffSaid1 | June 1, 2009 9:39 AM

I'm a long-time fed who has generally worked harder than many of my colleagues and feels undervalued by non-feds..but I've also been rewarded with promotions and special act awards. I don't have a problem with this column or with the columnist's questions. As a manager, I used to struggle with these kinds of questions: how to prioritize, document, ensure fairness, etc. I don't think it's abused. I think it's an important manager's tool. Still...as long as there's some protection again overreacting, I think it's always a good idea to review government procedures and practices. I agree that "money minus oversight equals mischief"...SOMEtimes.

Posted by: MaryHanson | June 1, 2009 10:15 AM

I have been paying taxes for 74 years, where is my bonus ?

There s NO one in the federal government worth a 1$ bonus. Military excepted

They are all leaches on the tax payer. Military excepted

Posted by: flippo10 | June 1, 2009 10:52 AM

Excuse me pmaley, how are you BLAME Human Resources, your local HR Department has absolutely nothing to do with processing any awards or handing out any awards, that is MANAGEMENT. Every management is given a $ amount in which it is their responsibilty to process the awards. NOT HR and by the way I am sure OPM has the information regarding awards all any individual has to do is go to MyBIZ and they can see for themselves what awards monies they have been paid and do not tell me that OPM can not get a $ amount. Do not speak of what you know nothing about.
david_weinstock you big baby, you sound like a real slacker.

Posted by: mariealvey | June 1, 2009 1:16 PM

You guys are barking up the wrong tree. Try to investigate position classification in the Federal government not awards! Grades are being handed out like candy in the Federal government. Just because someone is leaving doesn't make it right in upgrading his or her position. The Federal government and OPM need to get back into the business of regulating job classification and grading of positions. You get paid for what you do not because you are leaving the agency or have been working there for many years. If your responsibility hasn't increased, why should your grade? There are other systems out there to "reward" you. OPM please bring back classification and position management! People wake up. We have too many chiefs and not enough indians.

Posted by: madcosta7 | June 2, 2009 8:19 AM


"There s NO one in the federal government worth a 1$ bonus. Military excepted

They are all leaches on the tax payer. Military excepted"

Are you on drugs? Have each and every govt worker stop what they are doing right now and see how your government falls down around you. You cannot make a generalization like that. Just because the few people at the Social Security desk where you pick up your checks every month is a lazy jerk doesn't mean we all fit into that category. There are a lot of hardworking govt employees out there doing valuable work. Just like in any company there will always be those who are lazy and get paid for nothing. But that doesn't take away from the rest of us who bust our butts everyday. There are civilians workings in military orgs, DoD, etc who are doing just as much dangerous and valuable work as the military are. You need to do your research and shut your mouth.

Posted by: coastalisis | June 2, 2009 2:12 PM

ok....before you get your tighty-whitey's in a bunch....we have an on-the-spot program. It's a morale builder as it is peer generated. It's not for managers and managers can't be nominated. A peer nominates a peer for doing something above and beyond. Award is $100.

Posted by: houston59 | June 3, 2009 9:37 AM

Mariealvey, what a rude response. You can't possibly know what goes on in each and every organization. Yes, in this federal government utopia, there are people who don't work in career laddered positions, who were hired in at one grade and unless given assistance (from a mentor or someone in a higher position) will stay at that grade with just step increases. Unless you work side by side with that person you were really out of line in judging her and very mean. Real bad karma.

Posted by: houston59 | June 3, 2009 9:42 AM

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