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Senators Decry Plan to Change Status of Commissary Employees

A commissary cashier checks groceries at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Commissary cashiers are federal employees on the GS system. (U.S. Air Force/Margo Wright)
A commissary cashier checks groceries at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma. Commissary cashiers are federal employees on the GS system. (U.S. Air Force/Margo Wright)

A group of 15 Democrat Senators have sent a letter to the Defense Department decrying a proposal that would change the employment status of commissary workers.

"The undersigned Senators strongly oppose efforts to include in the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorization for the conversion of Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) employees to non-appropriated funds employees," states the Feb. 25 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

"Finding savings by imposing such cuts on DeCA's modestly compensated workforce who provide a valuable service to military families and many of whom are veterans and military spouses would be an imprudent and misguided way to cut costs," it adds.

A study commissioned by the agency and released in September proposed  moving all commissary employees from the current general schedule or wage grade system to a so-called non-appropriated funds, or NAF, status.

Because employees with the alternative status often earn less, have different benefits and can be more easily hired and fired, the system could save between $125 million and $225 million a year by changing systems, the Boston Consulting Group study said.

Employees would convert to the new system over two years during which they would maintain their current pay levels, according to the report. Other benefits, such as their current retirement plans, would also move with them. New employees would be hired under the revised pay and benefits system.

While the senators said they do support commissary reforms that might take it away from its current operating structure, they don't think those changes should put employees at risk.

"We do not believe that this means that DoD should stop striving to achieve cost-savings in the provision of the commissary benefit," they wrote. "Still, give the undeniable and substantial benefit the commissaries provide to military families, it is imperative that we proceed carefully with any proposal that could harm the commissary benefit, including conversion of DeCA employees to non-appropriated funds employees."

For 2016, the commissary system is projected to staff over 16,000 employees, including about 13,000 full-time workers. Nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, of current employees have a military affiliation, with about 28 percent of those being military spouses, according to the congressional convened Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.

The letter was signed by Sen. Patty Murry, D-Washington,  Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Delaware, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pennsylvania, Sen. Benjamin  Cardin, D-Maryland, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey,  Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @amybushatz.

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