Two-Thirds Of Federal Workers Get a Bonus
By Christopher Lee and Hal Straus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 17, 2004; Page A01
Almost two-thirds of 1.6 million civilian full-time federal employees received merit bonuses or special time-off awards in fiscal 2002, according to a comprehensive examination of federal records obtained by The Washington Post.
Of the 62 percent who got awards, half received $811 or more. The typical bonus amounted to 1.6 percent of salary. The awards ranged from less than $100 to more than $25,000. At some agencies, more than 90 percent of General Schedule workers collected a bonus. Government-wide, about 2,900 employees received cash bonuses totaling more than $10,000 each.
The disclosure of the figures brought varying reactions. Some civil service specialists said the proliferation of bonuses reinforces a common belief that many federal workers are rewarded for little more than showing up. Some agency and union officials said it was evidence of a talented workforce that performs admirably, and often at salary levels inferior to those of the private sector.
For the Bush administration, the numbers underscore the challenge President Bush faces in his drive to revamp personnel systems to more strongly tie pay to performance, an endeavor underway at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. White House officials have called the federal pay system broken, saying it rewards civil servants for longevity rather than how well they do their jobs. The Post undertook a wide-ranging analysis of federal bonuses after obtaining detailed pay records from the Office of Personnel Management through a Freedom of Information Act request. The records covered all civilian federal employees, except for those whose data was excluded for security or technical reasons.
Paul Light, a professor of government at New York University, said he doubts the public will swallow the notion that merit was the driving force behind the awards.
"I don't think Americans think that 60 percent of federal employees could possibly be so well above average that they would earn a bonus," Light said in an interview. "This is just going to further confirm what many Americans believe, that the federal government is somehow an island unto itself."
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said such views are unfounded. "There are an awful lot of federal employees who do a very good job, whether it's on a project or on a consistent annual basis," Kelley said. "And I'm glad to see that managers are looking for some way to recognize and reward them."
Under civil service law, federal agencies can hand out cash awards or additional time off to reward employees for good annual performance or contributions on specific projects. The law allows for multiple awards throughout the year, and all civil servants are eligible.
Three agencies -- the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy and the General Services Administration (GSA) -- each gave bonuses to more than 90 percent of their General Schedule employees.
At the NSF, Joseph Burt, the director of human resources, said the high number reflects "a high-performing staff across the board." He said the awards vary greatly, ranging from as little as $200 to more than $6,000.
"[P]eople recognize that if they do a good job -- do their jobs, if you will -- that they are going to likely get some bonus," Burt said. But, he added, "people know that the payouts are much larger for top performers. So there continues to be an incentive . . . to perform at a higher level."
At the GSA, bonuses are based on merit in a system that is fair and inspires good performance, said spokeswoman Mary Alice Johnson.
"Who is to say that those 90 percent didn't all merit awards?" Johnson said. "Maybe the number we should be concerned about is the 62 percent" of government workers overall who get bonuses. "Maybe those 62 percent aren't where we are." GSA recently revamped its bonus system for senior executives so that only those achieving the top two annual performance ratings will be eligible for awards, Johnson said. Similar changes for General Schedule workers are on the drawing board, she said.
The Energy Department also has changed its bonus system, said spokesman Joe Davis. As recently as 2002, managers were obligated to give bonuses to all employees with an annual performance rating of "met expectations" or better, Davis said. Now only an "outstanding" rating guarantees a bonus, although some workers with lesser ratings still may get awards, he said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
About This Story|
The Washington Post's analysis of federal bonuses was based on the Office of Personnel Management's Central Personnel Data File for fiscal 2002, which The Post obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The figures were the latest available.
Bonuses for individual federal workers can be searched in an online database at www.washingtonpost.com/federalpage.
The data file does not include bonus information for White House employees, legislative branch employees, the military, foreign nationals employed by the federal government abroad, and workers at several agencies, including the Postal Service, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. OPM also redacted information about bonuses in the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.