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.
State Department figures show that 87 percent to 94 percent of its jobs in Iraq are being filled, with the biggest recruiting challenge coming in finding staff for reconstruction assignments because, in the words of one official involved in Iraq policy, "they're in the most dangerous positions, they're the ones out in the field."
Of 632 overseas locations with U.S. government employees, 353 qualify for some kind of hardship differential, ranging from 5 percent up. The previous limit of 25 percent had been set in 1948, according to State's Office of Allowances.
In setting the hardship differentials, the State Department uses a scoring system that assigns specific weights to such factors as sanitation and disease (20 percent), housing (11 percent), political violence (11 percent), climate (10 percent), political harassment (9 percent), medical and hospital (9 percent) and physical isolation (8 percent).
The danger-pay allowance is based on a separate calculation that includes such factors as the existence of local conflicts, the involvement of U.S. combat troops and the record of U.S. civilian deaths in a particular country. Rates start at 15 percent. The previous maximum of 25 percent had been set in 1981, when the allowance was introduced.
About 25 countries now qualify for danger pay. Iraq and Afghanistan were the first to jump to 35 percent when the new rates were issued during the first week of March. Karachi, Pakistan, was added to the top-danger category on March 17.
Sometimes different places within the same country can receive different rates. For instance, although most of Afghanistan qualifies for the 35 percent danger allowance, an assignment in Kabul, considered slightly safer, gets 30 percent.
The State Department estimates that the additional cost of the higher hardship pay for its employees in Iraq will exceed $2 million a year. It expects to cover that expense through a supplemental appropriation request.
The rise in hardship pay for other foreign posts will be financed largely by eliminating 14 of 27 places that had been receiving hardship allowances of 5 percent, among them Athens, Warsaw, Hong Kong and Seoul. This move will free up an estimated $2.6 million a year, officials said. But the American Foreign Service Association has objected to it. "We think the department ought to be able to find the additional money without taking it out of the hide of others," Holmes said.
The association also has advocated allowing foreign service officers who leave Washington for an overseas post to keep the 17.5 percent cost-of-living differential that comes with duty here.