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Trump orders pay freeze for federal workers

A man walks past the Capitol building in Washington on Thursday. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are on furlough as the shutdown continues. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

President Trump issued an order Friday to freeze in 2019 federal employee salary rates, although a chance remains that workers will receive a raise.

Trump’s order was expected because he has advocated for a freeze all year. Due to Congress not making a decision regarding a raise, the move was made to prevent a pay increase from taking effect by default.

The order comes as some 800,000 federal employees, out of a workforce of 2.1 million, are in unpaid status due to the partial government shutdown that has lasted a week and is almost guaranteed to last a number of days more. Of those, about 380,000 have been furloughed, while the rest are still on the job without pay.

With nine federal departments and several federal agencies going unfunded, here's who and what are impacted by the partial government shutdown. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Congress punts shutdown into new year

“This is just pouring salt into the wound,” Tony Reardon, who is president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement. “It is shocking that federal employees are taking yet another financial hit. As if missed paychecks and working without pay were not enough, now they have been told that they don’t even deserve a modest pay increase.”

Trump’s order only applies to civilian workers. Military personnel, who are covered under a separate funding measure, will receive a 2.6 percent raise.

The order is the latest in back-and-forth developments regarding raises. After Trump’s earlier budget proposal for a freeze, the House passed a measure that in effect consented by making no mention of a raise. But the Senate then passed a counterpart that favored an average 1.9 percent increase, with some variation by locality.

Trump followed with a letter to Congress stating his intention to impose a freeze if legislators did not act by the end of the calendar year. For a time, it appeared the House would agree to the Senate’s proposal, but the two chambers never produced a bill resolving the issue.

Trump’s order is not necessarily the final word. Even before the partial shutdown hit, a main Senate advocate for the raises, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), brought up the prospect of attempting to pass legislation in the new Congress that convenes Jan. 3, saying “it should be the first order of business when we return.”

Federal employee pay raises are effective at the start of the first full biweekly pay period in the new year, which in this case will start Jan. 6. There will not be much time for enactment of a raise by then, but raises have been paid retroactively — most recently in 2003 and 2004, when agency funding also hadn’t been resolved until after the start of the new year. In both cases, a raise had been paid by default in early January but was overridden by a larger one contained in a full-year appropriations bill.

The Senate initially approved a 1.9 percent raise for 2019 on a strong bipartisan vote although it rejected a bid by Van Hollen and others to include a measure in the bill to temporarily continue funding agencies whose regular budgets have not been enacted.

With Democrats set to take control of the House on Jan. 3, the House is considered more likely to back a raise than it had been under Republican control. However, the president must sign the legislation for it to take effect.

Federal employees have received annual raises of 1 to 2 percent since a freeze from 2011 to 2013. The Office of Personnel Management says employees would remain eligible for raises in 2019, as they were from 2011 to 2013, through promotion or advancing up pay grades.

Under the General Schedule — the main pay system for white-collar employees below the executive level — employees move up a step every one, two or three years until hitting the top of a pay grade. Employees can also advance faster with a performance reward. Those “within-grade” raises are worth about 3 percent of a salary.

Executives and other employees at senior levels are paid within a range, with raises based on performance ratings; they still could receive those raises in 2019, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

In addition, the guidance notes that a freeze that has remained in effect since 2013 on salaries for senior political appointees is due to expire on Jan. 5. Unless a law is enacted reinstating that freeze, they would be due for catch-up raises covering the intervening years, it says. That would result in a nearly $11,000 raise for Cabinet members to $210,700, for example.