Blue-collar wage-grade federal workers waiting on pay raise

Every morning before Michael Turpin goes to work as a heavy-equipment operator for the federal government, he searches for headlines announcing that hourly blue-collar government employees like himself will finally get what their white-collar counterparts are already receiving: a 1 percent pay raise.

Even if that percentage seems meager — amounting to about $610 a year for him — the lack of a pay bump is particularly stinging for Turpin and about 230,000 other wage-grade federal workers, as they are known.

While President Obama ordered a 1 percent pay raise for most civilian federal workers in 2014, after a three-year pay freeze, that increase does not apply to hourly employees. The president has no direct control over their compensation, and Congress is required to take up a bill to raise it in line with the General Schedule employees.

But Turpin may see the headlines he is searching for soon.

The raise is included in legislation Congress is considering this week as part of the language in the omnibus spending bill, which would fund the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year.

“I just really hope we get it. It’s like there are two separate governments and we don’t count,” said Turpin, 45, who lives in Waldorf, Md., with his wife and four children and works at Andrews Air Force Base. “Our health insurance has gone up, our heating bills — everything but our paychecks. It’s like we’re an underclass of the federal workforce, even though we keep the government running.”

Turpin is a veteran of the first Iraq war, where he served as a heavy-equipment mechanic, working on forklifts and tractor-trailers. Today, he has to count every cent to make sure he can pay his bills on a $61,000-a year-salary. “Even a few hundred dollars would really help pay the bills,” he said.

In November, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), whose district includes 1,800 wage-grade federal employees, introduced the bipartisan Wage Grade Employee Parity Act to push for blue-collar federal employees to receive the same scheduled pay increase as their GS counterparts.

On Monday, Cartwright praised the bill for including the raise and said he was hopeful it would pass.

“These are workers who are at the forefront of protecting American war fighters, of running our VA hospitals and federal prisons,” Cartwright said. “The inconsistency is just inequitable. And it hurts a group of Americans that can least afford a fourth year with no increase at all.”

The government’s blue-collar labor force works side by side with white-collar workers in more than 40 agencies. About 70 percent are employed by the Defense Department, where, for instance, they operate the systems that can determine where mortar fire is coming from in combat zones.

The American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union say obtaining the raises are their “number one priority.” They argue that hourly workers are the backbone of the government and need the raise the most since their average pay in 2013 was $53,043, compared with $74,709 for GS employees.

Gary Pilkerton, 56, is married with four children. He works as a generator mechanic and is a local union leader at the Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pa.

“One percent isn’t even that much, but at the same time, we deserve a raise just like everyone else,” he said. “While everyone deserves a raise, we do the work and we are being punished for it. I don’t know how to say it any better.”

Workers such as Pilkerton and Turpin say they feel as if they are part of the disappearing middle class — hard-working folks who can barely pay the bills, let alone aspire to a comfortable American life they once had.

“There’s no more family trips or going out to dinner once a month — that’s all just gone,” Turpin said. “We are not on welfare or getting government food aid. But with our salaries, it’s a big strain on people who want to work but can barely afford to live, even on what everyone once thought was a stable government job.”

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer and award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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