The government Friday will release its latest assessment of how federal employee salaries compare with pay for other workers, potentially putting federal pay once again in the election year debate over the cost of the government.
The Federal Salary Council will receive data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that annually is used to determine the official "pay gap" in some 30 metropolitan zones plus other areas. While by law the figures are supposed to be used in setting federal pay, in practice the raise is determined in the congressional budget process. It already has been decided that pay rates will not increase at least until April 2013.
The new figures almost certainly will repeat long-standing conclusions that the government substantially underpays its workers. Last year's data indicated that federal workers are behind by 26.3 percent on average, and federal pay rates have been frozen since then, although individual employees still can receive raises for performance, promotion or successfully completing the waiting periods used in some federal salary systems.
While federal pay has been a long-running issue, the cost of the federal workforce has drawn heightened scrutiny in the last several years, and especially during this year's presidential campaign. In addition to proposing a 10 percent workforce cut through attrition, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney argues that federal workers are overcompensated by 30 to 40 percent on average.
That assertion is based on a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation that included the value of benefits; based on salary alone, that study found an average advantage to federal workers of 22 percent. The government's own data do not reflect the value of benefits.
Other studies using different methods and different sets of data have found federal employees ahead on average by varying amounts, with differences by education and other factors. Federal employee organizations favor the BLS method, which focuses on attributes of the job rather than of the person. However, the Government Accountability Office recently said that none of the comparison approaches is definitive.
The salary council is an advisory group consisting of union and agency officials and outside pay experts. Its annual recommendations go to a higher-level group which in turn reports to the president.
President Obama has proposed, and Congress has agreed, to freeze federal salary rates since they last were increased in January 2010. He has recommended paying a 0.5 percent increase in April after a temporary government funding measure expires.
Uniformed military personnel have continued receiving raises during that time and will get a 1.7 percent raise, plus increases to various allowances, in January.