If it's true that the grass is always greener on the other side, that would explain the paycheck envy some federal workers feel toward colleagues elsewhere who they think are better compensated.

Eight of every 10 federal workers live outside the Washington area, a high-cost place and headquarters to most federal operations. But because of locality pay differentials, workers in some cities make more--and workers in some cities make less--than their colleagues here.

Some Washington-based civil servants are especially perplexed that Uncle Sam pays more in Houston than in the nation's capital. Houston, many feel, is a lower-cost area, in a state that doesn't pester its residents with things like a state income tax.

Even further beyond the Capital Beltway, thousands of federal workers are stationed in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Thousands more are working overseas for the Defense, Treasury, Justice and Agriculture departments, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and a dozen other agencies.

Overseas federal workers and their counterparts in U.S. states and territories outside the contiguous 48 states have one thing in common: When January pay raises are handed out, they feel short-changed. Call it the Henny Youngman rule. When somebody asked the late comedian how his wife was, he replied, "Compared to what?"

Federal pay is the same. It is good or bad compared to what. Example:

Recently the Federal Diary dealt with geographic pay differentials. The average January pay raise for federal workers was 4.8 percent. That was split into a 3.8 percent across-the-board adjustment and a 1 percentage point allocation for locality raises. Under that system, federal workers in the Washington-Baltimore area got a total of 4.94 percent. The raise was bigger in some cities, including New York and Houston, and smaller in others, including Richmond.

Overseas federal workers (and the Alaska, Hawaii, etc., group) got only the 3.8 percent national adjustment. They don't get locality pay raises. Turns out that is a touchy subject.

The columns produced an avalanche of mail (okay, 53 letters and e-mails), mostly from federal workers--foreign and domestic--who feel others may be getting a better deal.

Feds in the contiguous 48 states cite tax-free allowances given overseas workers and differentials paid to workers in Alask, Hawaii etc. Overseas federal workers complain that they will get smaller pensions. Some Hawaii-based federal workers say that upon retirement, they will have to move to the mainland because their pensions (computed on base pay, not geographic differentials) won't cover the cost of living--as in eating regularly.

Here's some of the mail on the subject:

* "While Houston may be a low cost of living area . . . compared to D.C . . . you correctly pointed out the pay disparity between Houston feds and their equivalents in private industry [in the oil business, airlines, high-tech and medical facilities] is sizable and growing more disparate year-after-year. While Texas has no state [income] tax, we have some of the highest property taxes in the nation. I have worked for the government for 22 years in the Midwest, New York City and San Francisco, so I believe I am qualified to accurately judge this issue." -- Tom Simmons

* "The pay raise for federal employees in Alaska [and also Hawaii] will be 3.8 percent of base pay, but they will also receive an additional NONTAXABLE 25 percent of that 3.8 percent to their cost-of-living allowance. . . . Overseas federal employees are not being mistreated. Nor are employees in the contiguous 48 states being given special treatment that overseas federal employees are missing." -- Tom Kelleher, San Francisco

* "You forgot to mention how overseas feds get a smaller retirement due to the nonpayment of locality pay. COLAs are not counted toward retirement. THIS IS NOT FAIR." -- Ann Ruby, Hawaii

* "My heart bleeds (not really) for my fellow Foreign Service officers who complain about getting a smaller pay raise, even as they receive hardship differentials, housing allowance, etc. Believe me I would rather be in Paris, with its perks, than here." -- Unknown Foreign Service officer

* "Your Jan. 11 column didn't mention the significant problem with COLA vs. locality pay. Overseas feds who draw COLA don't get credit for it for retirement purposes. Locality pay does get credit. This is a significant problem for overseas workers within three years of retirement." -- Jeff Davis

* "As a member of the Foreign Service who has served both domestically and overseas, the locality pay received in D.C. pales in comparison to the benefits of having housing (often better than I can afford here), utilities, schools, etc. paid for overseas, as well as COLAS at some posts and differential pay ranging up to 25 percent. The difference in locality pay between D.C., Boston, New York, etc. is an issue; having been assigned to all three areas, D.C. is equally if not more expensive." -- Kevin O.

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

Thursday, Jan. 13, 2000