Administration hails federal workers but says government’s role as employer has been hurt

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 10

The Obama administration knows it is fortunate to have federal employees who serve with “passion, professionalism and skill.”

But it worries about being able to keep many of them when some could find better pay with less political rancor in the private sector.

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

These are among the messages contained in a narrative section of the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal that is being released Monday.

A chapter called “Improving the Federal Workforce” provides a variety of demographic, compensation and trend information. Four paragraphs into the 14-page document, the administration acknowledges “The last few years have been challenging for the Federal workforce. Three years of a Federal pay freeze, harmful sequester cuts, a 16-day shutdown of Government, and a challenging political climate have made it increasingly difficult to deliver on agency missions.”

Evidence indicates that “at least in some jobs, the Federal government has difficulty hiring and retaining workers with the same skills or managerial experience as their counterparts in equivalent private sector jobs,” according to the paper, which is part of the Analytical Perspectives section of the budget.

Recruitment and retention are not helped by near stagnant or declining wages and a political environment that fosters what Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) called, in an interview last week, “negativity” toward federal employees from his Republican colleagues.

Consider these points from the report:

●“Taking into account both the recent pay freezes and the changes in retirement contributions, earnings for new Federal employees have fallen 10 percentage points relative to the private sector between 2009 and 2014.”

●Increases in the educational levels of federal employees “suggest that pay should have increased faster in the Federal workforce than in the private sector.”

●The partial shutdown in October “significantly impacted the Federal government’s role as an employer. Job stability and a sense of mission have typically been advantages of working in the Federal sector, but increases in political acrimony may be leading to a deterioration of those advantages.”

●Tight budgets “will make it increasingly challenging for the Federal government to keep pace with [the] private sector, especially in hard to recruit fields, both in terms of pay and in areas like training.”

Bottom line: Uncle Sam’s reputation as a good employer has been damaged.

This year, federal workers are getting a 1 percent raise, and President Obama has proposed that same increase for 2015. But that doesn’t keep up with inflation, so federal worker buying power is falling.

The administration “recognizes that this proposal is lower than private sector increases,” the budget document says, but it “strikes a balance between the tight budget constraints” and “the critical role our employees play in our country.”

The 1 percent increase will take effect next year unless Congress says otherwise, which does not seem likely. So far, Republicans have not objected, but some Democrats think Obama should have pushed for more.

Acknowledging that 1 percent is as much as the administration can get, Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) said he wishes the president would have proposed a 3.3 percent increase “that would have made up for the three-year freeze. Then if we have to negotiate, we can negotiate that down. But don’t start at the bottom.”

Proposing a raise of that amount “would have sent a signal to the workforce that they are valued, that they’re worth it,” he added.

But negotiating strategy must be based on reality, and the reality is the budget has no slack, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told a press breakfast Friday.

“Federal employees are important,” she said. “We believe we sent a good, strong signal” with the budget proposal.

Here are a few other items from the budget chapter on the workforce:

●Federal workers are “more highly educated, more concentrated in higher paying professions” than their private sector counterparts. Feds also hold more high-level degrees.

●Veterans were 31 percent of new federal hires in fiscal year 2013, up from 29 percent two years earlier. At the Defense Department, 54 percent of the new hires last year were vets.

●The workforce in 2013 was “older than Federal workforces of past decades and older than the private sector workforce.”

●The administration will focus on Senior Executive Service hiring and performance appraisals.

●The federal personnel system “remains inflexible and outdated.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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