Federal Diary: Workers chafe as Obama reins in raises

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

President Obama will win no fans among federal workers with his action to limit their pay increase next year to 2 percent.

That's a long way from the 18.9 percent average raise Obama said many government workers would have received using a complicated statutory formula designed to make federal pay more comparable to private-sector compensation.

"Our country continues to face serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare and most Americans would not understand or accept that Federal employees should receive an average pay increase of 18.9 percent while many of their fellow citizens are facing employment cutbacks or unemployment," he wrote in a letter to Congress.

That 18.9 percent can be confusing. It's the amount needed to almost close the pay gap with the private sector as required in a law presidents have bypassed for years. No one expected the raise to be that high. But federal workers did want to match the 3.4 percent increase those in the military are scheduled to get, or at least the 2.9 percent that had been discussed in Congress this year. Civilian raises also will not vary by locality next year as they have previously.

Although federal workers appreciate how difficult it is for so many people, they also agree with John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who said "the unwillingness to provide pay parity and to limit civilian pay raises to just 2 percent sends the wrong message to workers who have believed in President Obama's promise to honor public service."

Pay is one of relatively few areas in which federal unions have parted with Obama. They have praised his appointments and appreciated his support of their priorities. Compared with Bush administration relations, the president and union activists generally march to the same drummer, though Obama sometimes moves too slowly for their taste.

In addition to the pay dispute, union leaders were upset when an Obama administration panel called for reconstruction of the Pentagon's pay-for-performance operation rather than its destruction. But labor got what it wanted when Congress voted to abolish the National Security Personnel System.

The president cited his authority to submit an alternative to the large pay increase in case of a "national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare." A national emergency has existed since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. And with an extended war on terrorism (though this administration doesn't use that term), the national emergency apparently won't end, either.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Obama's action "is disappointing but not surprising. President Obama made clear in his pay report of August that this would be his direction. . . . We are hopeful that Congress will act to overturn the president's plan."

In June, Democratic Reps. Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) and Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), chairmen of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and its subcommittee on the federal workforce, Postal Service and District of Columbia, respectively, urged colleagues to support a 3.4 percent raise for civilians.

"Federal employees work side-by-side with military personnel both here and abroad, and deserve to be recognized for their extraordinary efforts," said their letter to House Appropriations Committee leaders. "Pay parity has long enjoyed bipartisan and bicameral support, and we ask your Committee to continue this tradition."

Congress still could legislate a different figure and that number would take effect if the president signed the bill. His letter, however, makes it likely that federal employees will get 2 percent.

Gage, critical of the amount, said, "the federal government must have the ability to retain and recruit the highest quality personnel."

Obama does not think recruitment efforts will be harmed.

"I do not believe this decision will materially affect our ability to continue to attract and retain a quality Federal workforce," he said. "Since any pay raise above the amount proposed in this alternative plan would likely be unfunded, agencies would have to absorb the additional cost and could have to reduce hiring to pay the higher rates. Moreover, the GS [General Schedule] 'quit' rate continues to be very low (2.1 percent on an annual basis), well below the overall average 'quit' rate in private enterprise."

Gage asked the president to reconsider. There's little doubt Obama's answer would be no.

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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