The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal employees on tap for pay raise after Congress takes no action

The Capitol dome is seen under repair on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brandon/AP)

For federal employees, silence in the budget will prove to be golden.

By taking no position regarding a federal employee raise for 2016, the budget agreement announced Tuesday evening will allow an average 1.3 percent raise for federal employees to take effect by default. That represents the third straight year that Congress has followed such a strategy of action by inaction on the raise.

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The increase, to be effective with the first full pay period of the new year — starting Jan. 10 for most workers — will be divided into two parts: A 1 percent increase will be paid across the board, and the money for the additional 0.3 percentage will be allotted in varying amounts according to locality.

In the Washington-Baltimore locality, a sprawling zone that includes the District of Columbia, much of Northern Virginia and Maryland, and parts of eastern West Virginia and south-central Pennsylvania, that will mean a raise of about 1.5 percent.

That is one of 21 metro area zones set to expand by pulling in some outlying counties; in addition 13 new such zones are being created. The result will be additional pay boosts for nearly 110,000 federal workers who are being moved out of the lowest-paid locality, the catchall “rest of the U.S.” zone for places outside what will now be 44 city areas.

An executive order to finalize the increases is still ahead.

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Federal labor leaders wanted a larger pay raise, but they were pleased it was not smaller, as it has been in recent years. They also were glad to see no hit on employee benefits.

“At this point, we’re feeling like we did okay in it,”  American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. told reporters Wednesday. “At this point, I’m not seeing any real harm. There’s nothing coming back attacking our pensions this time or anything of that nature.”

 National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon said “this pay raise amount is far too low,” but he acknowledged that it was better than nothing, adding:  “This funding agreement could have blocked a pay raise entirely.”

Although the raise specifically applies only to General Schedule employees — white-collar employees below the executive level — raises for blue-collar employees under the so-called wage-grade system once again will match those paid to GS employees in an area.

The raise will not be paid to political appointees, however, nor to members of Congress. Further, career employees at the senior executive and senior professional levels do not receive raises in tandem with the GS. They are paid within ranges based on performance and other factors, although the raise will bump up the pay caps applying to them.

Federal employees received 1 percent across the board raises by default in January of both 2014 and 2015, following three years of frozen salary rates; some employees received raises during that time due to promotions, advancing up the steps of a pay grade or for other reasons.

Another provision of the bill would extend and increase the services being provided to victims of the computer system breaches of federal personnel files and background investigation files. Currently, services such as credit monitoring are available at no cost through 2016 in the former case and through 2018 in the latter; the measure would keep both in effect for 10 years. In addition, it would raise the liability protection for costs related to identity theft from $1 million to $5 million.

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“The American people are deeply disappointed by the response they’ve seen so far, and so am I,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the sponsor of that language. “These breaches erode confidence going forward that the federal government will be able to protect federal employees whose personal data has been stolen. This is an important step in responding to the breaches by doing more to protect the victims.”

The measure also would:

  • Bar the IRS from paying awards to employees or rehiring former employees without considering conduct and compliance with federal tax law; require that it better educate its employees on taxpayer rights; and generally require that it fire employees for taking or failing to take any official action for personal gain or political purposes.
  • Ban IRS employees from using personal email accounts for official business.
  • Continue for another year the general ban on starting new studies to determine whether federal jobs could be contracted out to the private sector under a process called “A-76.”
  • Expand whistleblower protection to assure that Veterans Affairs Department medical staff have the same protection as other VA employees and require the department to “send a clear and unequivocal message throughout the VA system that retaliation against whistleblowers will not stand, and that those in leadership who condone or ignore such retaliation will be held accountable.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the IRS ban of the use of personal email accounts.