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White House calls for modest 0.5% pay raise for federal civilian workers

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After a two-year freeze in federal workers’ salaries, President Obama will propose a 0.5 percent pay increase for civilian employees as part of his 2013 budget, senior administration officials said Friday.

The plan is likely to become part of an election-year confrontation between the White House and Congress over government spending. Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates have called for freezing basic pay rates for at least one more year, with some pitching it as a way to pay for extending the payroll tax cut.

Obama called for the pay freeze shortly after the November 2010 midterm elections, saying federal workers needed to share the burden of getting the deficit under control. The proposal disclosed Friday, which requires congressional approval, means that federal civilian employees would get a modest across-the-board pay jump next January.

Despite the freeze, raises have continued for workers who graduate into higher steps of the General Schedule pay system or who are promoted — a practice some GOP lawmakers say should be halted to help trim the federal debt.

Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), who chairs a House subcommittee overseeing the federal workforce, called the pay plan “pure politics” and labeled Obama “a public sector union puppet” for making the proposal.

“Federal employees are paid better, receive better benefits and enjoy unparalleled job security, compared to their private sector counterparts,” Ross said in a statement.

But administration officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly, said the White House would no longer support using pay freezes as a way to cut the federal deficit. And in a tight budget year, they said, the small increase was all they could afford.

The jump would be well below the 3.6 percent cost-of-living adjustment that took effect this week for Social Security recipients and most federal retirees to keep pace with inflation. It is also far below private-sector earnings, which climbed an average of roughly 2 percent in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The White House informed federal agencies of the decision Friday in order to put the finishing touches on its 2013 budget proposal, which is expected to be unveiled in early February.

Virtually nobody with a federal paycheck has had a significant raise in recent years. Obama froze the salaries of top West Wing staffers and political officials after taking office in 2009. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have not had a raise in four of the past six years.

No decision has been made on a raise for uniformed military personnel, the officials said, although troops received a 1.6 percent pay bump this month. Lawmakers and federal worker unions traditionally push to ensure pay parity between civilian and military personnel, the standard practice for many years before 2009.

Some rank-and-file federal workers said Friday that the proposed raise is nominal at best and that they think they’ve sacrificed enough.

“My rent went up 10 percent in the last two years,” said Jared Hautamaki, an Environmental Protection Agency employee, adding that the proposed 0.5 percent increase “is an insult to federal workers.”

John Sakowski, a Food and Drug Administration employee from Bowie, said the raise would mean an additional $500 annually — less than $20 per paycheck, before taxes. “For that much, why bother?”

Nancy Bryant, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee from Waco, Tex., agreed. “I’m not a wealthy bureaucrat. I’m a low-level administrative worker who lives paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I’ve been sacrificing a great deal by having my pay frozen.”

Bruce Rodman, with the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board in Naperville, Ill., said that he felt fortunate to potentially earn a raise but that considering the small percentage, “why not just freeze salaries for another year?”

The federal government has about 2 million civilian federal employees, with about 85 percent of them living and working outside the Washington area. The federal sector added about 2,000 jobs in December, according to statistics released Friday.

Federal law calls for raises based on the rate of private-sector wage growth as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although in practice, increases are negotiated in the budget process. By increasing salaries by just 0.5 percent, administration officials said the government would save $2 billion in fiscal 2013.

Federal worker union leaders said that Friday’s news wouldn’t help workers much — nor shield them from potentially devastating GOP cost-cutting proposals.

“It’s obviously not going to have a real impact on their ability to spend money or help the economy or stay even with the private sector,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. “It’s a move in the right direction, just not as substantive as it could have been.”

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said that GOP cost-cutting proposals remain “a real threat” as lawmakers begin meeting to hammer out a long-term deal on the payroll tax cut. But any cost-cutting plan that targets federal jobs and pay is “shortsighted,” he said.

Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), whose district is home to about 65,000 federal employees, said Friday that small pay increases and a sustained effort to cut federal pay and benefits could compel federal workers to retire early or quit.

Sakowski, the FDA worker from Bowie, said he may do just that.

“When the economy eventually rebounds, I’ll take my education and experience and flee government service for the private sector,” he said.

Staff writers Ryan Kellett and Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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