Pay raises averaging 4.77 percent are now in effect for tens of thousands of blue-collar (wage-grade) federal workers in the Washington area. The raise became official Dec. 22 and will be retroactive to October.

The wage-grade category includes laborers, carpenters, mechanics and other skilled craftspeople. If something is broken, these are the people who fix it.

Blue-collar salaries are adjusted geographically. There are 132 locations (the Washington area being one of them) with increases based on the government's survey of salaries, and pay increases, for the same jobs in local private industry.

The Washington area salary survey is made in midyear. The raises are always announced in late December or early January and are paid retroactively.

Locally, most of the wage-grade employees work for the Army, Navy, Air Force or other Defense Department agencies. They are found in almost every agency in Washington and in Charles, Frederick, Montgomery, Prince George's, Calvert and St. Mary's counties in Maryland, and Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier, King George and Stafford counties in Virginia.

White-collar federal workers are paid under a different system. They received an average 4.8 percent raise this month. After locality adjustments, the raise for Washington-Baltimore white-collar feds will be 4.94 percent.

As in the white-collar salary system, wage-grade employees are divided into 15 grades in rank-and-file and supervisory occupations. Employees in higher-level jobs have a 19-grade pay system.

Salaries for white-collar federal workers are always expressed in annual terms. For example, a Grade 11 employee here this year will be paid $42,724 to $55,541. (The year 2000 white-collar pay scale was published in the Federal Diary column Dec. 22.)

Pay for blue-collar employees, however, is always shown as an hourly rate. A Wage Grade 11 blue-collar worker here this year, for instance, will make $18.19 to $26.92 per hour.

The detailed, and official, chart of the 2000 blue-collar pay tables for the Washington area can be found on the Internet at www.cpms.osd.mil/wage/ scheds/af/survey-sch/027/ 027R-22Dec1999.html. That address is a mouthful, but it is necessary to navigate you to the correct table.

Early Retirement

A Voice of America worker asks:

"Our agency has early retirement authority, but we're unclear on whether this is an absolute entitlement, or whether management can deny early retirement to an employee, whether for cause or otherwise. I've gotten conflicting answers from the folks in our personnel office. . . . I think this issue might be of rather wide interest."

A bogus Internet rumor has confused many federal workers about early-out rules. Many agencies have the authority to offer early retirement (and/or buyouts). Here's the deal:

Most retirement-age federal employees are under the old Civil Service Retirement System. To get an immediate annuity, the earliest they can retire is at age 55 after 30 years of service. Pension benefits are indexed to inflation.

But during an early-out, employees can retire at any age if they have 25 years of service or if they are at least age 50 with 20 years of service. Pensions are reduced by 2 percent for each year the retiree is younger than 55. But benefits are immediate and linked to inflation.

Many human resources officials--as well as individual employees--are confused about early-out rules. The bottom line: The agency calls the shots. It decides who gets an early-out or buyout offer. Neither is an entitlement available to all age-eligible employees.

Agencies can target buyouts and/or early-outs to specific groups of workers by occupation, grade or location.

The fact that an agency has the authority to offer buyouts, early-outs or both doesn't mean it must or will use it. And if it does, it will be the agency's call--not yours--as to who gets an offer.

Two Paychecks Tomorrow

Because of a computer software loading problem at the Federal Aviation Administration's payroll center in Oklahoma, 5,261 federal workers who are Maryland residents will get two paychecks (or direct deposits) tomorrow.

The Washington Post's Stephen Barr says this isn't a year 2000 glitch but a failure to follow software guidelines on the new Maryland tax tables.

Once the FAA discovered that the error would shortchange some employees, it decided to issue two payments to them tomorrow to make up the difference. The payments cover Maryland residents at FAA headquarters, the Federal Highway Administration and the Coast Guard in Baltimore.

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

Monday, Jan. 10, 2000