"Houston, we've got a problem!"

That phrase--which, by the way, according to the NASA Web page was "Houston, we've had a problem here!"--became famous in April 1970. The speaker was Apollo 13 command module pilot Jack Swigert. He was telling the Johnson Space Center, in Texas, about a serious problem with the moon-bound spacecraft.

The media reworded the quote to the one we use today: "Houston, we've got a problem!" But the point is that Swigert was telling the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at Houston that the Apollo 13 spacecraft might not make it back.

It did, thanks to the guts and brains of the crew and the ingenuity and grace under fire of hundreds of earthbound NASA workers.

The "Houston, we've got a problem!" line is part of the language. And it is often used, in a more earthy context, by Washington-based civil servants. They wonder why Uncle Sam pays them less than their counterparts in Houston.

The Washington "pay area" has 245,942 white-collar federal employees. That doesn't count postal jobs, or places such as the CIA. It is the largest concentration of federal workers in the nation--and has the largest number of upper-grade employees.

(More than 20,000 of the government's 35,000 GS 15s are here. So are about half of the GS 14s. More than 44,000 of the 154,000 GS 13s call the Washington area home.)

Thanks to the government's locality pay system, Washington area feds are paid less than federal civil servants doing the same jobs, for the same agencies, in New York City, which has 55,381 white collar feds; San Francisco, 24,266; and several other cities, including Houston, which, along with Galveston and Brazoria, Tex., has 10,327 nonpostal federal workers in its pay area.

A civil servant in the middle of the Grade 12 longevity pay scale today gets $55,303 in the Washington area; $57,964 in San Francisco; $56,677 in New York City; and $57,892 in Houston. The story is the same for all other grades. Feds in those cities--and a few others--make more.

How come?

Playing second fiddle to Houston seems to bother feds most.

Typical is this recent e-mail: "I'm new to federal employment and a little confused about locality pay. I don't understand how workers in Houston (in a state with no state income tax) can receive locality pay with a lower cost of living than workers in the D.C. area. A co-worker told me that Congress won't do it because there are too many workers in the D.C. locale and it would be too expensive. Another co-worker said D.C. area locality pay is depressed because the government includes West Virginia and Pennsylvania as part of the D.C. area in determining locality pay. Should I transfer to Houston?"

The answer is not so simple. First, Pennsylvania isn't included in the D.C. area pay survey. Also, it covers only a tiny area (around Harpers Ferry) in West Virginia. It does include Baltimore, which is a lower-wage city than Washington.

The cost of living has little to do with locality pay. It is based on the "average pay gap," as determined by the government, between hometown federal pay and pay for similar private-sector jobs in that area.

The Office of Personnel Management says the pay gap in Houston is high for two reasons:

* The Bureau of Labor Statistics survey data show high white-collar pay in Houston, which may be because of the mix of oil, gas and aerospace industries.

* Pay gaps are weighted by local federal employment. NASA is the predominant agency in Houston. It employs many scientists and engineers. "These jobs often have large pay gaps," OPM says, "and are getting greater weight than in other locations because of the local federal job mix."

Defense is the largest federal employer in the Washington area. The Social Security Administration is the largest federal employer in the Baltimore area.

The fact that folks in Houston don't spend a lot on snow tires (although they run up some hefty air-conditioning bills), pay state income taxes or pay the same gasoline prices we do doesn't enter into the locality pay computations.

Uncle Sam assumes a pay gap with most private-sector jobs and then makes wage comparisons based on the occupations of local federal workers compared with pay for similar jobs in local industry.

The result is that feds in some cities rate higher salaries--whether we believe it or like it--than folks in the Washington area. Those differentials will grow when President Clinton decides how much of the "average" 4.8 percent January pay raise will be used for locality pay purposes.

Meantime, as folks in Houston would say:

"Washington, you've got the problem!"

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com

Sunday, Dec. 12, 1999