Pay freeze doesn't leave all federal workers out in the cold

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 8:14 PM

While weather forecasters predict the nation will have its coldest January in many years, the freeze has already set in for federal employees, most of whom have had their pay put on ice for two years beginning Jan. 1.

But not for some of Uncle Sam's workers, who are wrapped in the blanket of a union agreement.

President Obama's pay freeze, which Congress approved last month, does not apply to raises negotiated through union contracts, according to guidance issued by the Office of Personnel Management last week.

"The pay freeze policy in the presidential memorandum may not, as a matter of federal sector labor law, apply to any increase that is required by a collective bargaining agreement that has already been executed and is in effect as of the date of the presidential memorandum," OPM said.

That doesn't mean employees covered by union agreements won't get hit in the future. The OPM guidance also told agencies to keep the pay freeze in mind next time they negotiate contracts: "Each agency should consider the policy contained in the presidential memorandum and consult with agency counsel to determine the agency's position in any collective bargaining that may occur going forward."

Although union-covered pay raises can be comparatively substantial, a 4 percent or 5 percent increase for example, a compensation agreement doesn't automatically mean covered employees will enjoy the warmth of big increases while their federal colleagues stand cold for two years. In some cases, the wages of covered workers are tied to the pay of those who don't have the same union protection.

Compensation agreements are uncommon in government. Uncle Sam doesn't allow any of his folks to strike, and very few of them get to argue with him about pay. That's the law.

"Basically, unions can bargain over conditions not set by statute," but those conditions generally do not include wages, said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Said Randy Erwin, the National Federation of Federal Employees' legislative director: "It is a very rare thing in the federal government to have union contract language that has provisions impacting pay for federal workers. Of the 110,000 federal workers we represent, less than one in a thousand have their pay covered by a collective bargaining agreement."

According to OPM, there are about 1.5 million federal employees in bargaining units, but fewer than 90,000 can bargain over pay.

But it does happen.

Kelley's NTEU is one labor organization with compensation agreements for its members at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Credit Union Administration. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association bargains for its members. Some Government Accountability Office employees have negotiated wages through the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers. The American Federation of Government Employees has contracts covering pay at the Government Printing Office and the Office of Thrift Supervision, among other agencies.

Yet the covered employees aren't necessarily taking home the big bucks while others remain stagnant.

The SEC contract with NTEU links member compensation to the pay of everyone else in government, according to the agency.

"Under the SEC-NTEU Compensation and Benefits Agreement for 2011, the SEC's base pay and locality pay is set the same as the rest of the government," said Kevin J. Callahan, a SEC spokesman. That's a zero increase.

It's the same story at the GAO. Although it is not part of the executive branch, it is indirectly affected by the pay freeze. Ron LaDue Lake, president of the GAO Employees Organization IFPTE Local 1921, said GAO compensation agreements tie base pay increases to the wages of General Schedule employees.

"So if GS employees end up getting zero across the board, that's what we will get," he said.

GAO staff members, however, can still get increases based on performance, LaDue Lake said, either in bonuses or in additions to base pay.

For other federal workers, union representation is paying off, literally.

Their contract calls for air traffic controllers to get a 3 percent raise in 2011 and 2012, according to the administration.

At the National Credit Union Administration, the average pay increase for collective bargaining unit employees for 2011 - when taking into account merit increases and locality adjustments - is 5.7 percent, said John J. McKechnie III, a spokesman for NCUA.

"As an independent agency, NCUA is under statutory obligation to negotiate pay," McKechnie said.

FDIC also has a pay for performance program, through which many employees will receive a 4 percent increase in their base pay. The pay raises at NCUA and FDIC are not gifts. They earned it.

"Since these increases are tied to performance ratings," Kelley said, "they reflect pay raises earned for work already accomplished by employees."

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