Thanks to a Catch-22 section of federal pay law, hundreds of senior air traffic controllers and supervisors will "lose" money today -- $30 or more -- for the privilege of guiding your holiday flight from one airport to another. And to add insult to injury, those same people will "lose" another $200 for working Friday when most federal workers are enjoying a bonus holiday.
The problem for the controllers, and other U.S. aides working round-the-clock schedules, is that they sometimes make more money (overtime, holiday and differential pay) than they are allowed to keep. If this sounds crazy, remember, we are talking about the U.S. government. Explanation:
Congress has imposed a maximum $50,112.50 ceiling on federal career pay. That works out to a maximum of $1,927.50 for a two-week pay period. Employes may earn more than that. Some air traffic controllers do. But, except for overtime, they can get only $1,927.50 per ay period.
This strange salary condition is a particular problem in the Federal Aviation Administration. But it also hits senior-level workers in the Veterans Administration, Defense Department, intelligence and law enforcement agencies and other places where people work round-the-clock, 365 days a year. Workers can be paid more than the $50,112.50 limit per year if they work overtime, and are paid overtime. But they cannot exceed the limit when they work straight shifts that happen to include holidays. The result is that many employs lose money for working holidays or premium-pay shifts.
Many controllers are watching $$$$ fly out the window this week because of the bonus holiday (Dec. 26) that President Carter granted other federal workers. The FAA personnel and thousands of other senior-level government employes will have to work Friday, as usual. Since they will not be working overtime, they will not get holiday pay. Hence the dollar loss.
A Grade 14 controller in the middle of his pay grade who works today, for example, will "lose" $32.44. That represents the amount of holiday pay that puts him or her over the $1,927.40 maximum for an 80-hour (two week) pay period. That same GS 14 employe working on Friday, a holiday for other federal workers, will be denied a total of $197.48 for working the two days, since he is over the pay limit.
Some federal agencies solve the problem by giving workers as much overtime as possible to close the pay gap, since people can exceed the $50,112.50 limit if they work overtime. But if the individual exceeds the limit within a regular 40-hour work week, the "extra" money never shows up in the paycheck.
Most of us, when we fly, put on a happy face. We hope our mechanics are the best in the world, that nobody in the flight crew has been partying too much, that the pilot (especially) got a good night's sleep and has a happy home life! But we rarely think about the air traffic controller whose job it is to help the pilot along his route, and keep his (our) airplane from running into another 747.
Members of Congress do a lot of flying. That is one reason why they get those nice, reserved, free parking spaces at National and Dulles airports. Members of Congress also set federal pay laws. They have created the funny money situation for the controllers, and other key employes, who aren't allowed to collect all they earn.
A lot of private industry employes who have to work Friday, are ticked off because most federal employes will be off. But lots of them, in hospitals, health and safety operations and, of course, air traffic controllers, will be on the job as usual. Friday is just another day for the 600,000 postal workers, too. Most white-collar federal employes who work Friday will get holiday pay. But for the controllers, the concept of holiday pay is like the old diet gag: eat anything you want, but don't swallow it. They can earn all they want, they just can't have it!