Although Washington is the bureauacracy's big apple (the town where the powers and the $22,000-plus average white-collar salary are), some of the federal establishment's really big bucks are paid in places such as Nome, Pearl Harbor and San Juan.
Civil servants generally get the same salaries whether they work in high-cost Detroit and San Francisco, or in smaller communities where living and prices are better. Washington is a top-dollar town mainly because so many of the career civil service's chiefs work here. But for big money, nothing can touch government rates paid in a few "non-foreign" areas, such as Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
Federal workers in those places get paid anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent better than their mainland, or lower-48, colleagues. And those cost-of-living payments, pegged to Washington living costs, are all the more rewarding because they are tax-free.
But the dollar differential that federal workers in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico enjoy (to make up for higher living costs) are in danger of being cut over the next few years, as living costs in metropolitan Washington skyrocket and exceed the national average.
Congress requires the government to reassess payments for federal workers in "nonforeign" areas every year. And those surveys are starting to cut into COL payments for employes, as the gap between living, eating and being sheltered in Washington and the high-cost areas narrows.
Federal officials believe it will be sometime before U.S. personnel in Alaska are asked to give up part of their 25 percent living cost differential. But in recent years it has dropped from 25 percent in Hawaii to 12.5 percent, and from 15 percent in Puerto Rico to 10 percent. The cutbacks have angered workers in those areas. But reasons for them come as no surprise to people living off the economy in Washington.
Recently the Office of Personnel Management approved new or existing rates for the areas. But it noted that the price/cost data between 1978 and 1979 for Washington and the field had shown some dramatic changes. Example:
The overall 1978-79 price jump for metropolitan Washington was 14 percent.
Medical care here was up 24 percent; clothing up 18 percent and the price of eating at home up 16 percent.
Housing costs in the area jumped 15 percent in the year measured.
On the island of Oahu (with Hawaii's largest city, Honolulu) medical care went up 11 percent; clothing also went up 11 percent and food was up 14 percent. Although the increases are big, they were modest by Washington standards.
Housing costs in Oahu were up 11 percent.
In Guam, which also rates a cost-of-living differential over Washington rates, the government says housing costs went up 8 percent, about half the Washington rate between 1978-79.Medical care there was 3 percent, a fractional increase over the 24 percent jump here.
Price increases in "nonforeign areas" that rate tax-free cost-of-living payments were generally lower than in Washington, with the exception of Alaska.
The Carter administration has asked Congress to "reform" the federal pay system by matching fringe benefits and wages paid in the private sector against federal salaries and benefits. In addition to the "total compensation" approach, the Carter plan also would set federal salaries for many employes on a locality basis, matching rates paid in hometown industries.
Federal unions are leery of the plan, which they believe would result in smaller future increases for government employes. They also note that high-cost areas are not always high-wage areas. For instance, living costs in Boston are high, but wages do not always keep pace.
Wages in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, in many cases, are lower than for similar jobs in Washington. But there the government sets salary differentials based on living costs, rather than on local pay. It is something for Congress to consider when it looks at the total compensation concept.