The government's civilian payroll will shoot up $24 million today, to $214 million, because hardly anybody is working. Tomorrow, when most of the 2.8 million feds return to their laboratories, file cabinets, in-boxes and offices, the payroll will get back to its normal level of around $190 million per day.
Federal officials figure that each holiday -- Columbus Day is not on the calendar of many private industry types -- costs the government an extra $24 million. In addition to paying people for not coming to work (which is one of the things holidays are for), Uncle Sam will kick out about $3 million per hour extra in the form of holiday pay for essential workers -- hospital aides, law enforcement types, air traffic controllers, maintenance and heating crews and others -- who must be on the job come rain or shine, Christmas or Washington's Birthday.
Although holidays are nice, they could wind up costing government workers heavily in the future if the Reagan administration succeeds, where the Carter people failed, in persuading Congress to adopt a new method of determining the size of October catch-up-with-industry raises that federal white collar workers get.
The Reagan team wants the government to use a new system -- based on comparing total compensation rather than just salaries -- to see how far behind (or ahead) federal workers are compared with their counterparts in the private sector. Opinion is divided on the subject: Government workers think people in private industry have it made, get fat bonuses, stock options, country club memberships and three-martini lunches. Private industry people think government workers are wrapped in a security blanket until they go into early retirement with one of the world's best pension programs.
Presidents Ford, Carter and now Reagan feel that the government overestimates (in favor of government workers) the salary differentials between civil servants and people doing the same work in private industry. Annual surveys of selected private firms are made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- government workers -- to determine pay changes in the private sector. Presidents and their advisers take that data under consideration and, in recent years, toss it out the window because it has consistently shown that feds are due double-digit percentage pay raises each October. That can't be right, they say, since the average white collar federal worker now makes about $25,000 a year.
The Reagan folks think the government vs. industry pay gap would narrow quickly if Uncle Sam compared his fringe benefit package with goodies offered in the private sector. Few dispute that the government retirement program is one of the best in the nation, and workers under it typically retire sooner, and with larger annuities (the average as of last June, according to the Office of Personnel Management, was $958) than persons under combined company pension plans and Social Security, which costs more and pays less every year.
The Reagan plan, borrowed from the Carter administration, would broaden the annual salary comparison surveys to include wages and fringe benefits of the largest group of workers in the nation, 12 million state and local government employes, whose salaries are not excluded from the government-industry pay matchup.
In many firms, fringe benefits are as good or better than those in government. This is especially true for health and life insurance benefits, and industry tends to pay its executives more than the $50,000 Uncle Sam gives his. Some union contracts in the private sector give employes an extra holiday or two over government workers (like a birthday). On the other hand, lots of private firms are open today while the government is officially closed.
The "tilt" in favor of government comes in the retirement package. If that could be factored into wage determinations, that along with the generally lower wages of state and local government employes, future pay raises for federal workers could be even smaller than the 4.8 percent white collar workers are due this month.