The Washington Post

Are federal workers underpaid? An advisory panel weighs in.

An advisory council has reported that pay of white-collar federal employees is nearly 35 percent behind the private sector on average, moving the controversy over pay comparisons along for higher-level consideration.

The Federal Salary Council's newly released annual report comes as federal pay again has come under scrutiny while political leaders look for ways to prevent automatic spending cuts that otherwise will take effect in January.

The report reflects data the Bureau of Labor Statistics presented in October that the council used as the basis for calculating an average "pay gap" of 34.6 percent in favor of the private sector. The indicated difference ranges from about 50 percent in the Washington-Baltimore area to about 23 percent away from 31 large cities where local salaries are studied.

Other studies using different methods and different sets of data have reached widely varying results, with several conservative think tankssaying that federal employees enjoy an advantage of roughly the same size on averageand more, if benefits are taken into account.

Disputes over pay comparisons have continued all year, with the Government Accountability Office in mid-year concluding that no one approach is definitive.

The council, which consists of union representatives and outside pay experts, reports to a higher-level group called the President's Pay Agent. That bodythe heads of the Labor Department, Office of Management and Budget and Office of Personnel Managementin turn makes recommendations to the White House.

Under federal pay law, an across-the-board raise linked to growth in private sector labor costs is supposed to be paid each January, and additional "locality" pay is to be paid to close the indicated pay gaps. That law has not been followed, however. In practice, federal raisesin years they are paidare determined in the budget process, with the local increases varying somewhat according to the measured gaps.

Federal salary rates were not increased in 2011 or 2012 and that freeze will continue at least through late March 2013 when a temporary funding measure expires. President Obama has recommended a raise of 0.5 percent at that time.

Federal employee organizations are pushing for that raise to be paid and made retroactive to January, arguing that federal workers already have sacrificed enough for deficit reduction. However, extending the freeze has been proposed in various debt-cutting plans.

Despite the salary rate freeze, individual employees have remained eligible for raises on promotion, for performance, or for successfully completing waiting periods used in some federal pay systems.

In addition to passing along the official pay comparison figures, the salary council said that the pay law indicates a 1.3 percent across-the-board raise for January 2014. That figure typically is taken into account when the White House makes its budget recommendations early in a year for the following January.

The council also recommended expanding the boundaries of some of the existing locality areas and setting individual rates in another 12 city areas. The effect would be to provide employees working in those areas with slightly larger future raises than they would receive otherwise.


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