Here is why working for the federal government is so good: Federal civil servants, on average, have received a pay raise in every year but two since 1969, meaning they can pretty much bank on seeing their paychecks grow annually.
But there is a cloud inside that silver lining: Average annual wages and salaries in the private sector have grown faster than civil service pay in the past 36 years, and so have consumer prices.
So while federal work has a lot to recommend it, pay is not one of the big draws, said Beth Moten, chief lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees. "Overall it's probably a negative," Moten said. "I don't think that salaries are comparable with similar occupations in the private sector. People come because they are public-service-minded."
In a recent survey by the Office of Personnel Management, 62 percent of federal workers said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their pay. About 21 percent said they were "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied," and the rest said they were "neither satisfied nor dissatisfied."
Many federal workers are growing increasingly anxious about their pay as the Bush administration prepares to toss out the 15-grade General Schedule, which links pay to longevity in a job, and replace it with a system that more directly ties salary increases to performance evaluations.
Starting this summer, such systems will be phased in over several years at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, which together employ more than 900,000 civilian workers. And Bush administration officials want similar changes throughout government.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said she fears that annual raises will suffer.
"I think in part it will come from a lack of funding," Kelley said. "I'm worried about what they will do with the money and whether there will be any recognition at all of the necessity for an annual adjustment that allows federal employees to even have a potential for staying even, from a buying-power standpoint."
At a briefing on the new DHS system earlier this year, Ronald P. Sanders, an associate director at the Office of Personnel Management, said pay increases will be determined both by the available money and by annual performance ratings. "Every employee who is 'fully successful' or better will be eligible to get a performance pay increase every year," Sanders said.
Even under the current system, with its long track record of pay increases, Moten said her members "know that you have to fight for the pay raise every year."
This year it is a fight that the federal employee unions and their allies in Congress appear to be winning. Last week, the House approved a 3.1 percent pay raise for the federal government's 1.8 million civilian employees. The pay raise, which would take effect in January and would be identical to what Congress is providing the military next year, was included in a fiscal 2006 spending bill for the departments of Transportation, the Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development.
The House vote swept aside the recommendation of President Bush, who had proposed a 2.3 percent raise for federal civilian employees and a 3.1 percent raise for the military. While the Senate has not taken up the pay-raise question, the House's action provides a strong signal that federal workers can expect to receive the 3.1 percent increase next year.
Since 1969, federal employees, on average, have received an annual pay hike of at least 2 percent in every year except 1983 and 1986, when there was no increase, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The overall pay scales for workers in General Schedule positions has increased by 357 percent during that period. That's higher than the 281 percent increase in congressional pay over the same time frame, although lawmakers' salaries -- $162,100 for most members of the House and Senate -- are far higher than the average federal worker's pay.
Average private-sector salaries have risen faster than federal pay, growing by 522 percent since 1969. Prices also have climbed faster, rising by 410 percent over the period, according to the CRS report.
The Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 was designed to bring federal salaries in line with those in the private sector. But the act has been only partly implemented, in part because the Clinton and Bush administrations have taken issue with its methodology and cost. So Congress and the White House instead negotiate the federal pay raise each year.