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Pay freeze could heat things up at the exits

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By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 8:00 PM

Actions have consequences. One unintended consequence of the two-year pay freeze President Obama asked Congress to impose on federal workers is the impact it may have on higher income employees and those eligible to retire.

The freeze could be the push they need to say good-bye to Uncle Sam and take their talents elsewhere.

"There's already a lot of pay compression at the top of the pay scale," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that focuses on federal workforce issues. Their income level may sound good, he added, "but a lot of those people have alternatives that pay a lot more." (The Washington Post and the partnership have a content-sharing relationship.)

Even those who contend, often misleadingly, that federal employees are overpaid must admit that highly trained, highly skilled federal workers - the doctors, lawyers, scientists and others - could command much greater money in the private sector.

Another consequence of the freeze on some better paid civil servants could be an aversion to upward mobility. Employee association leaders warn that the pay freeze could discourage high-level General Schedule workers, those in grades GS14 and 15, from seeking senior-level positions.

"Yes, the freeze will discourage 15s," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. "We know they're discouraged already from our survey of 14s and 15s. While they didn't choose pay as the top detractor (to seeking senior positions), one-third wrote comments which specifically mentioned pay."

The increased responsibility of senior-level employees and the less-stringent job protection available to them, coupled with the freeze could make it "not worth it," Bonosaro added.

Salaries for Senior Executive Service members 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.

There is confusion on how the freeze would apply to SES performance awards, according to one reader, who said some agency personnel offices are telling employees the freeze blocks SES performance awards, even for those below the cap. The Office of Management and Budget said "SES employees will continue to be eligible for lump-sum performance awards," but not those that increase base pay.

The affect of the freeze on federal executives is important because so many of them are near retirement age. "About 90 percent of federal executives will be eligible for retirement over the next 10 years, and the percentage of federal executives currently eligible for retirement has reached 50 percent of the corps in some agencies," according to a report by the Senior Executives Association and Avue Technologies. "Unresolved challenges in attracting the best and the brightest to these positions would leave a serious leadership vacuum at the top of the civil service."

The pay freeze certainly presents another challenge.

"It pretty much takes away any incentive" for GS15s to seek senior-level positions, said Tom Burger, executive director of the Professional Managers Association, whose members are largely Internal Revenue Service managers.


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