State Dept. Offers Record Pay in 2 Hot Spots

A U.S. helicopter passes over Baghdad, where the State Department raised its workers' danger and hardship allowances.
A U.S. helicopter passes over Baghdad, where the State Department raised its workers' danger and hardship allowances. (By John Moore -- Associated Press)

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By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

To help recruit U.S. government civilians for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department has boosted the pay allowances for both hardship and danger to the highest levels ever granted, department officials said.

Starting this month, U.S. government civilians serving in Iraq and in Afghanistan outside of Kabul are receiving an extra 35 percent above their base salaries for hardship and another 35 percent for danger. Previously, they were paid 25 percent extra for each category, the limits the government had set decades ago for any foreign post.

Because a number of other overseas posts had also been receiving the 25 percent maximums, government authorities were under pressure from Foreign Service representatives to adjust the allowance system and differentiate the most difficult assignments from the rest. The new record-high rates underscore the especially poor security and stressful working conditions faced by U.S. government employees in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the Bush administration continues to emphasize signs of progress there.

The pay increases were approved as part of a broader restructuring of rates that also lifted allowances for more than 20 other locations, mostly in Africa and central and southeastern Asia. But most of these increases stopped at 30 percent. Only Iraq and Afghanistan ended up with 35 percent for both hardship and danger.

"The idea was to recognize service at our most difficult and dangerous posts, and foremost among those posts are Iraq and Afghanistan," said a senior State Department official involved in the decision but willing to discuss the increases only on condition of anonymity. "We know that the department has trouble recruiting people for these places."

Congress granted permission to raise the allowances in a little-noticed foreign relations authorization provision in late December. Responsibility for determining which locations get what allowances rests with the State Department, which issued the new rates earlier this month.

The rates apply to about 80,000 U.S. government civilians working overseas and also tend to be used by private U.S. companies and other organizations as benchmarks for establishing their compensation plans for employees abroad.

State Department officials stressed that the revised allowances were not based on any reassessment of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, they said, the changes involved taking previous survey data and awarding more compensation to the worst cases.

"Over the years there had been a real compression of posts at the 25 percent level," said J. Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which pushed for the increases. "To maintain a system in which everyone is volunteering for the places they go, you want to provide incentives that reflect the true range of conditions."

Base salaries for the more than 300 State Department members working in Iraq range from about $35,000 to $155,000, according to department figures.

With word of the new hardship and danger rates still filtering through government ranks, officials said it was too early to assess the impact on attracting fresh volunteers for Iraq or Afghanistan or persuading those there to extend their assignments.

The duty involves not only very long work days and weeks but also cramped living quarters in heavily guarded compounds. A recent survey of active-duty Foreign Service officers with experience in Iraq, published this month in the Foreign Service Journal, quoted many respondents describing the working conditions as "extreme" and the security requirements as enormously constraining. At the same time, many played down financial incentives as a consideration in volunteering for Iraq duty and instead cited a desire to serve where most needed or to boost their chances for promotion.

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