Federal workers’ pay satisfaction drops, though feelings vary among agencies

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 29, 2012

With their basic pay rates frozen for two years, it’s no surprise that federal employees’ pay satisfaction is dropping along with their purchasing power.

What is harder to explain is the varying satisfaction levels among employees at different agencies, when most use the same pay scales.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

A report by the Partnership for Public Service says the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. ranks No. 1 among 30 large agencies on employee satisfaction with pay. The Department of Veterans Affairs is last on the list. At the FDIC, 83.3 percent of surveyed employees said they were satisfied, compared with just 53.3 percent at VA.

Government-wide, 59.1 percent were satisfied in 2011, a drop of 6.1 percent from the year before.

(The Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post have a content-sharing relationship.)

The data don’t explain why satisfaction levels vary so greatly, said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the partnership.

“Agencies are facing the same headwinds but respond in different ways,” he said.

One thing is clear: Despite all the attention given to federal pay, particularly with repeated attempts by Republicans in Congress to further reduce compensation, salaries aren’t the primary driver in overall federal worker satisfaction.

“In short, pay matters and is a concern for federal employees, but meaningful work and leaders who empower and motivate employees have a bigger impact on overall job satisfaction and commitment,” the report says.

The study is drawn from the partnership’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study, which uses data from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Jo Schuda, a VA spokeswoman, suggested one reason for the department’s low rating is that VA “draws highly skilled medical professionals in large numbers for whom the private sector may compete by offering higher salaries.”

VA has company among agencies with low pay-satisfaction ratings. On the list of large agencies, the Labor Department “had the biggest decrease in worker satisfaction regarding pay, registering a 12.2 percent drop from 2010 to 2011,” according to the report.

Stephen Barr, a Labor spokesman (and former Federal Diary columnist), said that “there are a number of factors to consider” for Labor’s poor showing, although the reasons he cited apply to most agencies. “We have operated under a pay freeze for two years. Last year, specifically, we implemented the government-wide policy that limits performance bonuses for all employees. Many employees are at the top of their career ladder and ineligible for further promotion.”

Alexander Bastani, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 12 at Labor, has a more pointed view.

“The employees at the United States Department of Labor are deeply disillusioned that Secretary Hilda Solis has fought ferociously to prevent enforcement of the Lilly Ledbetter Act (which facilitates lawsuits in pay discrimination cases) in her own department. This failure has had a profound affect on older African American females.”

The department had no comment on Bastani’s remarks.

The study said that results for the Transportation Security Administration “were most troubling.” “Only 35.8 percent of employees were satisfied with their pay. With the latest decline of 15.1 percent in employee attitudes toward their pay, TSA registered the lowest score on this issue of any agency in the Best Places to Work rankings.”

No one is getting rich at the TSA. Security officers start at $25,000 a year, and supervisors can make $59,999.

Lynn Dean, a TSA senior adviser, said her agency’s low rating could reflect not just pay levels but also the overall working situation for security officers who screen passengers and baggage at the nation’s airports. “It’s a very, very hard and difficult job” in a sometimes negative environment, she said.

The screeners are on a pay-for-performance system that was a focal point of criticism during the agency’s long labor-organizing campaign, which concluded last year with the election of the AFGE as the bargaining representative.

The report’s findings show that satisfaction with pay varies not only with agency, but also with position and to a lesser extent race and ethnicity. Among the grade levels, the highest-ranking civil service executives have the lowest pay-satisfaction levels.

Just 57.2 percent of Senior Executive Service (SES) members and others in senior-level positions said they were satisfied in 2011, a drop from 62.1 percent in 2010. Among wage-grade workers, 59.6 percent were satisfied in 2011, compared with 61.1 percent in 2010; satisfaction for General Schedule (GS) workers grades 1-12 was 57.9 percent, down from 60.7 percent; and among GS grades 13-15, it fell to 74.1 percent from 78.9 percent.

Citing OPM data, the report says the average salaries were $52,436 for wage grade; $61,126 for GS 1-12; $111,803 for GS 13-15; and $166,244 for senior level.

The big satisfaction gap between the top GS grades and the SES could reflect a feeling among the executives that the increase in pay isn’t worth the stress and headaches that come with much more demanding positions.

On the race front, just over 64 percent of white employees said they were satisfied with their pay, compared with 63.1 percent of Latinos and 58.7 percent of African Americans.

Philip Taylor, president of the Coalition for Change, which addresses racial discrimination in federal employment, said, “Black federal employees continue to confront a ‘glass ceiling’ and often subtle discriminatory employment practices at every level, despite having the same or even better qualifications, education and experience as compared to their white counterparts.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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