While Congress and the White House debate whether to give federal workers a 4.4 percent or 4.8 percent raise next year, from 200,000 to 300,000 workers are in line for a much bigger total increase.

About the same number of civil servants got -- or will get -- an extra 3 percent this year, on top of the 2.68 percent that all nonpostal federal workers got in January.

How to qualify for an extra raise: Show up for work.

In addition to whatever general pay raise feds get in January, about one-third of the civil service work force will get an additional 3 percent during the next year. The longevity increases, known as within-grade (WIG) raises, are based on the employees' time in his or her civil service grade.

Critics of the longevity adjustments like to refer to them as "being there" raises. Backers of the system that rewards people who have done the same thing for a long period of time say there is a little more to it than just being there.

Many federal workers resent it when people say the raises are automatic because the raises actually are based on performance. But government figures show that less than 2 percent of eligible employees are denied the WIG raises each year, which would seem to make them at least semiautomatic.

Under the WIG system, employees in the first three steps of their grade move up a step -- and get a 3 percent raise -- every year. That increase is in addition to the regular January adjustment for all white-collar civil servants.

In the fourth, fifth and sixth steps of the grade, employees get a longevity raise, worth 3 percent, every other year. In the seventh, eighth and ninth steps of the grade, the longevity adjustments come every three years.

In the Washington area, a federal worker at Grade 9 is paid $33,650 in the first step, $38,137 in the fifth step and $43,747 in the 10th and top step of that grade. Each 1 percent across-the-board federal pay raise costs about $1 billion, according to government estimates.

The general public hears plenty about proposed federal pay raises, especially when raises for members of Congress are included.

But the public knows little about automatic longevity raises within the civil service. Politicians rarely consider them when looking at the merits of a civil service adjustment. This year, for example, the Clinton administration proposed a 4.4 percent adjustment for January 2000. Friends of federal employees are hoping that civil servants will be included in the 4.8 percent adjustment for military personnel being pushed by congressional Republicans.

Either way, a good number of employees will get -- thanks to longevity adjustments -- total raises next year worth either 7.4 percent or 7.8 percent.

The raises do more than put after-deductions money in employees' pockets. They also boost the value of vacation time (unused hours can be cashed in at retirement time), life insurance and civil service retirement benefits. Higher pay also increases the amount workers can contribute -- either 5 or 10 percent of salary -- to their 401k plan.

Clinton administration officials apparently have decided there is no time -- or interest -- this year in pushing for a review of the civil service compensation system. But they may decide to launch it next year -- seeking to compare the "total compensation" packages of federal vs. private-sector employees. The "being there" raises would then be used to prove that Uncle Sam isn't the skinflint many federal workers -- and their unions -- believe.

The White House already considers military-civilian compensation to include both pay and retirement benefits. The president's budget, which called for a 4.4 percent federal pay raise, estimated that the total civilian military "compensation" package for fiscal 2000 could be $247.5 billion.

Love Your Mate

If you do, and if you are a federal or postal worker, you can set your mate up for life with an indexed-to-inflation annuity plus guaranteed lifetime health insurance protection at group rates. The health insurance coverage workers can leave their mates doesn't discriminate because of age or medical condition. But to guarantee it, workers should take steps at least five years before retirement. For details, check this space tomorrow.

Sunday, June 20, 1999