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Unions seek federal pay raise at least three times greater than Obama’s proposal


President Obama has his plan for federal employee raises, and union leaders have theirs.

Actually, federal labor leaders have different ideas, one upping the other. All agree, however, that Obama’s proposal for a 1 percent pay increase in 2015 is too cheap for serious consideration.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

The president will make that proposal in his budget message next week. It’s not likely that Congress, with a Republican-majority House, will tell the president he is not generous enough to his staff of 2 million.

But union officials say the pay raise should be at least three times what Obama is seeking.

“NTEU believes a 3.3 percent pay raise is a fair and reasonable amount,” said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley.

IFPTE believes that the pay raise should be between 3 percent and 4 percent — a message that we will be taking to Capitol Hill this year,” said International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers President Gregory Junemann.

“A 4 percent pay raise is a modest and affordable increase that will help employees keep up with rising living costs, including higher retirement and health-care expenses,” said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr.

Federal unions don’t bargain for pay and benefits in most cases, but they do command attention.

“The president must send a strong message that inflicting pain on federal employees was a miserable failure,” Cox said. “The administration punished federal workers in order to endear itself to those who despise the federal workforce, and it didn’t work. If the president truly wants to put an end to austerity and the decline of the middle class, there is no better place to start than with his own employees.”

Cox’s assertion that Obama punished feds, through a recent pay freeze, to endear his administration to political opponents can’t withstand scrutiny. But it does demonstrate the strong degree of frustration and dissatisfaction federal employees have with the administration’s proposal.

The 1 percent raise Obama is proposing for next year follows the same tiny increase feds are receiving this year. That hike hasn’t been enough to boost federal employees’ morale, which is falling faster than their buying power.

“Based on the Employment Cost Index (ECI), a measure of tracking private-sector pay, average wages have increased by 6.5 percent during the last four years, while federal wages have increased by 1 percent,” Kelley said.

The 1 percent is based on basic pay rates and does not take into account pay increases based on promotions or longevity, or pay cuts for some workers due to furloughs last year.

Federal basic pay rates were frozen for three years — 2011, 2012 and 2013. Employees hired in 2013 and 2014 contribute significantly more toward retirement than those hired before 2013.

“Federal workers have done more than their fair share to reduce the federal deficit, contributing $138 billion toward deficit reduction over 10 years from the pay freeze and from higher pension contributions from new federal hires,” Kelley said. “In addition, many federal workers served furlough days last year due to the sequester resulting in further loss of pay.”

Itemizing that figure, which House Budget Committee Democrats confirm, Kelley said $99 billion comes from the pay freeze, $15 billion from increased retirement contributions for federal workers hired in 2013, $6 billion from increased retirement contributions for federal workers hired after Jan. 1, 2014.

The remaining $18 billion is the difference between the 1 percent raise this year and what would have been provided under Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act guidelines.

House Republican chairmen Paul Ryan (Wis.) of the Budget Committee and Darrell Issa (Calif.) of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee declined to comment on Obama’s plan. One critic of federal pay, Chris Edwards, a Cato Institute official who wrote an article titled “Overpaid Federal Workers,” acknowledges that “federal compensation has been one of the few parts of the budget that has been trimmed in recent years.”

Though a Federal Salary Council study indicates the private sector has a 35 percent pay advantage over the federal workforce, James Sherk, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said in an e-mail that “the average federal employee made 15-30 percent more than a similarly skilled private sector worker.” Even the freeze and the furloughs, he said, “would not be enough to eliminate that disparity — particularly not in a time of low inflation.”

Many Republicans in Congress may hold that view, but so far congressional opposition to the pay raise, on the grounds that it is too big, has not emerged.

Area Democrats, representing large federal employee constituencies, welcomed Obama’s pay proposal, even while wishing it would have been more.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said the proposed raise “builds on [Obama’s] pledge to exclude cuts to civil servants in this year’s budget. Federal workers are hardworking, middle-class Americans, and yet no one group has been asked to contribute more to deficit reduction. While it would be better to be in a position to provide a full COLA [cost-of-living adjustment], I hope our Republican colleagues will not fight this modest increase.”

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, also a Maryland Democrat, said that “the time has come for Congress to take seriously the widening gap between federal and private-sector salaries to which the recent pay freezes have contributed.”

Perhaps that time has come, but feds know not to spend any raise until they see it in their checks.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

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