But before the budget battles began, federal agencies paid out more than $349 million in recruitment, relocation and retention bonuses in 2009, according to a new report by the Office of Personnel Management. That’s a 22 percent jump from the previous year.

Overall, 45 agencies made 43,250 total “3R” payments — up 9 percent from 2008. Total payments averaged $8,079, OPM said.

Another 51 agencies said budget cuts mean they can no longer use incentive payments to keep workers or recruit new ones. Most notably, the Commerce Department cut its payments by 52 percent as it reduced the number of bonuses paid to patent examiners with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The office has faced stiff budget cuts and is hiring fewer people than expected, the report said.

The government's two largest departments, Defense and Veterans Affairs, made the most incentive payments. The Pentagon doled out 21,910 payments, while VA awarded 8,885 in 2009.

The State Department — which employs diplomats and other highly skilled personnel often working in dangerous locations — paid out the highest average incentive payments, totaling $12,586.

Federal managers are making wider use of the payments as a way to keep valued, highly skilled employees when their basic salary is inadequate when compared to private sector jobs. The Obama administration and federal worker labor unions note that more highly skilled federal employees — government accountants, lawyers, intelligence analysts, doctors, nurses and scientists — earn less on average than their private sector counterparts.

But congressional Republicans, eager to cut spending, will surely use this new report as further proof of what they consider to be generous salaries, benefits and bonuses to federal workers that the government can no longer afford.

Despite the opposition, OPM Director John Berry said the Obama administration “will continue to work with agencies to assist them in using these incentives...to attract and retain employees to support agency mission and program needs.”

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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