Carol Bonosaro decided it is time to get out of the storm.

After leading top federal civil servants through a period of pay freezes, government shutdowns (actual and threatened) and other insults, she is retiring as president of the Senior Executives Association (SEA).


Carol Bonosaro is retiring as Senior Executives Association President. (Chris Flynn)

The last few years have been a particularly hard time for federal employees, “a tsunami…of unremitting challenges,” she described it as she prepared for her Nov. 4 departure and a move to Boynton Beach, Fla., where her daughter lives.

It’s not tough times driving the candid Bonosaro away. She is leaving for personal reasons. At 75, she’s been president for 29 years, following 25 years in government with the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) and the Commission on Civil Rights. That’s enough for anyone. Too much for some, especially when the future is not particularly bright.

What’s ahead on pay and benefits?

“I think not much,” she said. “I think that pay increases will be incremental at best. Unless things change radically, we’ll continue to see attacks on federal benefits.”

[Senior federal executives earned fewer bonuses in 2013]

Just this week the Cato Institute, a small-government advocacy group, released a report saying in “2014 federal workers earned 78 percent more, on average, than private-sector workers.” Research by the Federal Salary Council disputes that. It found a 35 percent pay disparity in favor of the private sector.

Even Cato reports that “the private sector pays better” for highly educated workers, citing a Congressional Budget Office study.

Senior Executive Service (SES) members are among the government’s highly educated. These are Bonosaro’s people. But she is not optimistic for them or other feds.

Do you see conditions getting any better?

“I wish I did,” she said. “I don’t see any glimmers of hope on the horizon.”

What can be done about this?

“You mean other than burning incense and saying a quick novena? I wish I knew.”

Complicating the compensation situation for senior executives is their pay for performance system, which Bonosaro said, “has to a large degree been in a shambles.”

“The system has to be fair,” she continued. “Executives have to know they’re going to get the rating they actually earned…and that they will have the pay raises that go along with those ratings. None of that is true right now. Either we have a pay for performance system or we don’t.” Among issues facing her members, she said, “that’s a big one.”

Workplace rights is another.

SES members in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have been the guinea pigs in a push to cut the due process rights of federal employees. Last year, Congress and President Obama approved legislation that severely limits the appeal rights of VA senior executives facing dismissal or demotion. Congress also has considered legislation that would undercut those rights for all VA staffers and some Republicans favor similar measures for the entire workforce.

The law affecting VA senior executives “was a real low and the most serious threat to the civil service,” she said. “That legislation ripped a hole in the Pendleton Act,” an 1883 law that established the hiring of government employees based on merit and not political affiliation, “with not a word from the administration or from basically the public service community, but for SEA.

“That’s extremely worrisome, because that was the first olive out of the bottle…How many years is it going to take to repair this damage?”

[Congress wants to make it easier for VA executives’ heads to roll]

One way to help repair damage to the morale of SES members is through the Presidential Distinguished Rank Awards. Every year, almost, senior executives are honored with a black-tie banquet, sponsored by the SEA Professional Development League, in the elegant State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Bonosaro initiated the recognition in 1986 and was livid when the Obama administration canceled the honors, which come with large monetary prizes, for 2013. They are back now.

She also fought congressional plans to halt performance awards or bonuses for SES members in the IRS and the VA.

Bonosaro leaves the federal fray with a job her colleagues say was well done.

“Because of her guidance at SEA, Senior Executives have had a stalwart friend and supporter who worked vigilantly to keep the government’s senior leaders prepared for the challenges of the 21st century,” said Federal Managers Association President Patricia Niehaus. “Throughout Carol’s time at SEA, she has worked tirelessly to ensure that leaders within the federal government are given the necessary tools to create an efficient and effective workforce.”

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said Bonosaro “represented her constituency well and was always very aggressive on their behalf… She’ll be missed in the community of federal employees.”

Her job was well done, but not finished.

“I worry a great deal about the career executive leadership corps,” Bonosaro said. “What we often have are proposals that are based on assumptions and anecdotes, but not hard data. “I see these executives in positions that are just very challenging. They are dealing with reduced resources, almost the view that they should be on call 24/7. They’ve got proliferating mandates to deal with that are piled one on top of another… It’s a very tough arena these days.”

It will continue to be.

But soon, it will be someone else’s fight.