Joe Davidson
Joe Davidson
Columnist

Federal unions say workers already sacrificed

As national leaders look for ways to avoid falling over a “fiscal cliff” that could eviscerate government services, federal employee organizations want to make sure Congress knows their members already gave at the office.

The latest salvo is a letter a group of unions representing federal workers sent this week to congressional leaders, with a copy to President Obama. It urged them “to defuse the doomsday device of sequestration . . . without any further impact on federal employees.”

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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“Further” is the key word here.

When politicians talk about shared sacrifice, it seems they sometimes forget that so far feds are the only folks who have sacrificed in the effort to prevent massive budget cuts and significant tax hikes.

“To date the federal workforce has given $103 billion back to the US treasury,” said the letter from the Federal Workers Alliance (FWA). “That equates to an average of $50,000 in compensation per federal employee over ten years — a huge sacrifice for any worker to have to incur.”

The sacrifice will be shared by everyone if the cliff is not avoided. Federally Employed Women (FEW) has issued a series of possible sequestration scenarios showing how the cuts could affect the general public.

“[N]onsensical across-the-board cuts will prove to be disruptive, detrimental and extremely harmful to our children, elderly, travelers, workers and all Americans in all areas of our society,” FEW said. “From food safety to healthy children to research to safe skies to our economy as a whole, to name just a few, sequestration cuts will have a devastating impact on our nation.”

Feds, of course, will suffer the same cuts as everyone else, plus those directed at the workforce.

The $103 billion figure over 10 years comes from $60 billion attributable to the two-year freeze on basic pay rates for federal workers that was originally scheduled to end next month, $15 billion from changes to retirement for workers hired beginning next year, and another $28 billion that workers effectively will lose because of a proposed pay raise that has been reduced and delayed at least through March.

“Considering that no other group has yet to give anything toward reducing our debt, we believe that federal workers have already more than done their part,” the Alliance said. “Federal workers have not only answered the call to public service, but their individual sacrifices have been significant.”

The union letter said the current freeze will cost $16,500 over a decade to a federal worker earning $40,000 annually.

“These numbers more than reflect the fact that federal workers have stepped up to the plate,” the unions said.

Stepping up to the plate includes getting hit with a tax increase during a period when Democrats and Republicans are united in their opposition to tax hikes for the middle class, argues the American Federation of Government Employees. The   $15 billion from retirement changes amounts to a tax hike because “under Congressional budget rules, increases in employees’ salary contributions to retirement costs score as tax increases,” says a Nov. 14 letter to senators from Beth Moten, AFGE’s legislative and political director.

The retirement increase will come in the form of higher employee contributions to federal workers’ pensions. Most employees currently contribute 0.8 percent. Workers hired after 2012, except those with five years of previous federal service, will pay 3.1 percent of their salaries.

“It is also important to address the false notion that federal workers are somehow the beneficiaries of extravagant pensions compared to their private sector counterparts,” says the FWA letter. “Such claims could not be further from the truth.”

The harsh truth is that additional hits on federal retirement and pay remain a threat.

Don’t be surprised if there is a move to revive a proposal to calculate retirement payments on the highest five years of an employee’s pay instead of the highest three, as is now the case. The House has already approved an extension of the pay freeze to a total of five years.

“Clearly, federal workers and retirees have done more than any other group in the name of deficit reduction,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said when the Federal-Postal Coalition sent a similar letter to Congress last week. “It is time for others to step up and recognize the need for shared sacrifice.”

The 15 unions that signed the Alliance’s letter are: the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the Association of Civilian Technicians; the International Association of Fire Fighters; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers; the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots; the Metal Trades Department; the National Association of Government Employees; the National Federation of Federal Employees; the Seafarers International Union; the Sheet Metal Workers International Association; the SPORT Air Traffic Controllers Organization; and the United Power Trades Organization.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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