Thousands of federal civil servants and an even larger number of uniformed military personnel will see a bit of financial sleight of hand next year that will move their paychecks from one fiscal year to another. The paychecks due those employees on the final Thursday or Friday of September will be delayed until the following Monday. That's Oct. 2, which also happens to be the second day of a new fiscal year.

Civilians involved in the see-you-later paycheck stunt include employees of the Defense Department and the Coast Guard, members of the Public Health Service commissioned corps and workers in the Veterans Affairs and Labor departments, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and some House staff members.

Have a nice weekend!

The financial sleight of hand is part of a last-minute congressional shuffle to "save" money by pushing $3.6 billion in payroll costs from the current fiscal year (year 2000) into fiscal year 2001. In case you don't think in fiscal year increments, remember that a fiscal year starts Oct. 1 and ends the following Sept. 30.

Ideas such as this, trimming $3.6 billion from one fiscal year's budget by delaying some people's payday for a couple of days, are the reason politicians get paid the big bucks.

What will happen is this: Most military personnel and a smaller number of civilian workers--whose normal payday would be Sept. 29 or Sept. 30 won't get the money on time. Instead, Uncle Sam will pay them on the following Monday, Oct. 2. The exact same amount of money will come out of the same pocket (the taxpayers'), but it will be shifted from one fiscal year to another.

If a corporation pulled something like this--without the consent of workers and their unions--it could expect a visit from the Labor Department, the Internal Revenue Service and maybe a half-dozen other federal agencies keen to enforce the law. It would be a form of fraud--not paying people in a timely--as promised--fashion.

But when the government does it to its own, it is called "savings." After all, Congress makes the laws.

The pay delay was approved in the closing days of this year's congressional session. Congress and the White House agreed to combine a number of appropriation bills that hadn't been passed--or had been vetoed--into something called the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act. President Clinton signed it into law in late November, and it became Public Law 106-113.

A two- or three-day delay in getting paid isn't the end of the world for most people. But it will be a hardship for some lower-income federal workers who don't have the luxury (or the means) to keep a rainy-day cushion of a couple of hundred bucks in their accounts.

For some civil servants--who already feel oppressed, ignored or unloved by politicians--it is just another kiss-off, yielding a smoke-and-mirrors "savings" of billions of dollars by playing games with the calendar--and the paychecks of military and civilian personnel.

Will the delay hit other payments, such as Social Security benefits? Surely you jest! Politicians are terrified to do anything that would alarm the one in six Americans who get Social Security benefits. Those benefits and other so-called entitlements will be paid on time. The only people who will get shortchanged are a sizable number of federal civil servants, plus nearly everybody in the uniform of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

Federal Pay Raise

Still no word on the locality pay adjustments due federal workers in January. The president has signed into law the average 4.8 percent civilian federal pay raise approved by Congress. But the amount that workers will get in particular metropolitan areas won't be known until Clinton decides how much of that raise will be earmarked for locality pay. Until he decides, no pay tables can be worked up. If, for example, he allocated 1 percentage point of the raise to locality pay, Washington- Baltimore area feds would get a total increase of about 4.9 percent.

Retiree COLAs

The January cost-of-living adjustment for retirees became official in October, but many retirees still haven't gotten the word. The increase will be 2.4 percent for benefits paid under the Civil Service Retirement System and 2 percent for those paid under the Federal Employees Retirement System.

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

Thursday, Dec. 16, 1999