The Federal Diary
The Federal Diary
Joe Davidson

Federal employees take sequestration fight to the people

Federal employees, frustrated by their inability to defend against budget cuts, are taking their fight to the people.

The largest federal union plans to hold 100 rallies next Wednesday across the country, a “National Day of Protest” against the widespread cuts, called sequestration, that threaten federal pay and public services.

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.

Archive

Are the cuts affecting you? How?

More from Federal Diary:

Navy Yard workers remember when their world shattered

Navy Yard workers remember when their world shattered

Navy Yard staffers recall last year’s massacre. They are sad, but they also have pride in their colleagues.

Survivors recall the Navy Yard massacre one year later

Survivors recall the Navy Yard massacre one year later

People who were there talked about being in the building during the Navy Yard massacre one year ago.

Work to improve security clearance process continues

Work to improve security clearance process continues

The government is trying to improve the security-clearance process, but much work remains.

Organized by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the rallies will be held outside federal agencies and the offices of members of Congress.

“Our message is very clear,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr., “sequestration has got to go.”

Cox and other federal labor leaders have literally — and repeatedly — shouted this message. With the across-the-board cuts, Cox said, “federal employees won’t be able to do the work that the American public expects them to do.”

Yet the budget cuts are being implemented and no one will feel the pain more than the federal workforce.

Among federal workers, perhaps none will feel the cuts more than Border Patrol agents, who stand to lose up to 40 percent of their pay, according to their union, because of unpaid furlough days and elimination of overtime this fiscal year, which ends September 30.

The Border Patrol situation is the “very worst overall plan” for federal workers, Cox said at a news conference with other labor leaders.

It is the recently hired agents who will suffer the most.

“Our newer guys are really going to take a hit because they are starting out at pretty low levels,” said Shawn P. Moran, vice president of AFGE’s National Border Patrol Council. “I’ve already had agents tell me they’re going to lose their homes because they are not going to be able to make their mortgage payments.”

In addition to unpaid days and loss of overtime, which can vary among agencies, federal employees now face a third year of a basic pay rate freeze.

The freeze has been a hot topic for federal employees since it was imposed for two years beginning January 2011, then extended through the end of this month. Now, with temporary budget measures advanced by both chambers of Congress, and, significantly, by Republicans and Democrats, a third full year of the freeze seems certain.

The Republican budget proposal, released Tuesday by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), would not extend the pay freeze as previous GOP budget plans urged. It didn’t have to. But it did anger federal employees with a suggestion that they are not hurting during these tough economic times.

“Compensation for federal employees continues to outpace pay for their private-sector counterparts,” Ryan’s document says. “The non-partisan CBO [Congressional Budget Office] recently released a study saying that federal workers are, on average, compensated 16 percent higher than comparable private-sector employees. Immune from the effects of the recession, federal employees have received regular salary bumps regardless of productivity or economic realities.”

That kind of talk gets Moran going.

“Overpaid? Tell that to the Border Patrol agents who just spent 12 hours tracking drug smugglers on foot,” he said. “Tell that to the BORSTAR [Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue] team who just rescued the illegal aliens abandoned by a smuggler in the searing heat of the Sonoran desert. Tell Brian Terry’s family that their son [a Border Patrol agent killed in 2010] was paid too much as he battled a criminal rip crew and laid down his life to protect people he had never met. Tell that to the 119 families whose loved ones sacrifice has consecrated desolate shrines to freedom along this nation’s borders.”

The CBO took a lot of union heat for the report Republicans love to cite, a report that continues to inflame federal pay discussions. It must be noted that the study, issued in 2012, covered the years 2005-10, which was before the freeze and furloughs were implemented.

Yet it is hard to square Cox’s remark, in a Tuesday news release, that “the CBO did not conclude that there was a 16% differential in favor of federal employees when comparing total compensation,” with the report, which essentially said just that.

The report said: “Overall, the federal government paid 16 percent more in total compensation than it would have if average compensation had been comparable with that in the private sector, after accounting for certain observable characteristics of workers.”

Asked about this, an AFGE spokeswoman said, unconvincingly, that the CBO did not reach a conclusion.

Cox was on stronger ground, however, when he added: “Even the CBO acknowledged that its data on benefits were unreliable, even though without that element of the comparison, there was no differential in favor of federal compensation.”

The word “unreliable” isn’t in the study, but “uncertain” is. The report undermined its 16 percent finding when it said “CBO’s estimates of the costs of benefits are much more uncertain than its estimates of wages.” Without the “uncertain” estimate of benefits, CBO found “the federal government paid 2 percent more in total wages” compared with the private sector.

If that 2 percent was there in 2010, it’s probably not there now and certainly not by the time the government gets through with the freeze and furloughs.

The CBO report aside, Ryan’s budget, which does call for increased retirement contributions from feds, along with the House and Senate measures that would extend the pay freeze through the end of the calendar year, “are just more evidence,” Cox said at the news conference, “that too many politicians have virtually no regard for either the services our members provide, or the ability of our members to pay their bills.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

 
Read what others are saying