Obama still getting push back on pay freeze for federal workers

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 12:45 AM

Lately, President Obama has been upsetting core supporters with great speed.

His agreement to extend tax breaks for the rich, if only for two years, left many otherwise loyal supporters fuming.

When you're under attack, it's always comforting to have the warmth of home. But if home for the boss-in-chief is the hearth of the federal workplace, he will find the fire flickering, dampened by his plan to freeze employee pay.

Although they are not a monolith, many in the government's workforce cheered his election. That's certainly true for the federal unions that worked so hard for Obama. He sharply disappointed them when he reversed course last week by abandoning the 1.4 percent raise he had earlier recommended - only to adopt the Republican pay freeze position.

Yet he didn't go as far as some Republicans and a report last week by his deficit commission suggested. Even with the freeze, many federal workers would still make more money next year because of longevity-based step increases and bonuses.

Washington area members of Congress, including the House majority leader, are among those pushing against a two-year freeze. Eight House members, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), said Congress should consider a one-year freeze. They said a second year could be reconsidered later as part of a larger deficit-reduction program.

In a letter to the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the members said, "We do not believe civil servants should be unfairly targeted outside the context of a comprehensive approach to the federal budget simply because they carry out the work of the federal government."

In addition to Hoyer, Reps. James P. Moran Jr., Gerald E. Connolly and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, Chris Van Hollen, John P. Sarbanes and Donna F. Edwards of Maryland, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District signed the letter. All but Wolf are Democrats.

Any adjustments to pay beyond fiscal year 2011 should "be reserved for the 112th Congress," which begins next month, they added, "where federal pay can be considered in the context of a more comprehensive approach to deficit reduction."

When that more comprehensive approach is debated in Congress, it's a sure bet the step increase system and bonuses will be a GOP target.

To explain, here's a quick primer on federal pay because Uncle Sam doesn't make things simple:

Most white-collar employees are paid under the General Schedule, which consists of 15 grades of 10 steps each. Employees, excluding slackers, move up the step ladder automatically every one to three years. Management can also advance employees more quickly based on especially good performance.

Let's look at some examples:

A GS-5, step 7 employee in the Washington-Baltimore area is paid $40,887 this year in base salary. If he receives a step increase in 2011, his salary would rise to $42,022, a 2.8 percent increase. An additional 1.4 percent raise would have brought the total to $42,610.

Similarly, a GS-9, step 1 employee in this area makes $51,630 this year. A step increase would raise that to $53,350, an increase of 3.3 percent. A 1.4 percent raise on top of that would have brought the total to $54,097.

A GS-14, step 4 employee in this area makes $115,731. A step increase would raise her salary to $119,238, a 3 percent increase. A further 1.4 percent raise would result in $120,907.

Actually, an average national raise of 1.4 percent likely would have resulted in a larger raise in this region, possibly about 2 percent. Higher raises are paid in areas with relatively highly paid private-sector workers, such as Washington-Baltimore.

Blue-collar employees are paid at an hourly rate, under a different system called the wage grade system. It allows for step increases worth 4 percent. Wage grade pay rates are linked to those of comparable local jobs.

Besides step increases, federal employees are eligible for various types of awards, bonuses and incentive payments, which would not be affected by a pay freeze. Some of those payments are linked to performance and some to management's desire to recruit or retain employees with high-demand skills.

High-level white-collar employees, such as those in the Senior Executive Service, are in another category. SES salaries are set within broad national ranges, with individual pay varying according to qualifications and performance, up to a cap that for most this year is $179,700.

In a pay freeze, SES members still would be eligible for performance-based raises so long as they are below the cap. Those who are up against the cap would not be eligible for any raises. However, they still would be eligible for performance awards. In 2009, nearly four-fifths of career SES members received such awards, averaging about $14,800.

The possibility of step increases and other hikes to federal pay don't make the freeze any more palatable to William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. The freeze on base pay will have a cumulative effect on workers for years, even into retirement, he said.

Labor "felt blindsided" by Obama, Dougan complained, adding: "If this is how you treat your friends who helped you get elected, it's a pretty sad statement."

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

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