Promises of Pay Parity — Dashed Again
By Joe Davidson
Thursday, August 14, 2008; D03


Dear Frank and Flo Fed,

Good news! The law says you’re due a whopping 31 percent pay raise because you live in the Washington, D.C., pay area.

The bad news — you’re not going to get it.


Uncle Sam


Let me explain.

Under the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990, the disparity between pay for federal and non-federal workers should be down to 5 percent. But Uncle Sam hasn’t followed the law.

To reach that point now, he would need to boost D.C. area federal pay by almost one-third, according to a Congressional Research Service report issued last month. Raises for other areas would vary because of differences in local labor markets. The nationwide hike would average more than 19 percent.

But “the law has never been implemented as originally enacted,” the report says.

You can’t put Uncle Sam in jail for flouting this law. It gives him a big loophole. He’s free to ignore the otherwise required pay raises primarily for GS (General Schedule) employees “in the event of a national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare,” the report explains.

And his Pay Agent (also known as Elaine L. Chao, secretary of labor; James A. Nussle, Office of Management and Budget director; and Linda M. Springer, Office of Personnel Management’s former director) told President Bush in December to use the loophole, because “given the national emergency . . . we believe it would be unwise” to allow the full raise to take effect.

But the Pay Agent also said “we have adopted all of the Council’s recommendations,” meaning those submitted by the Federal Salary Council, an advisory body that includes administration appointees, union officials and outside representatives.

That’s curious, because the council recommended an average increase of almost 37 percent. Terri Lacy, chairman of the salary council, declined to comment.

Chuck Grimes, deputy associate director for performance and pay systems at the Office of Personnel Management, says the council’s recommendation is not really a recommendation, but more an indication of what it would take to close the pay gap. Furthermore, the 37 percent, he said, does not take into account the average 17 percent in locality pay increases that have been paid over the years.

Besides, “there’s not enough money to do it,” Grimes added. It would cost $12.1 billion to close that gap, according to the congressional report.

For now, federal workers will have to wait on the 3.9 percent raise the House and Senate appropriations committees approved for next year. Congress could give final approval to the increase when it returns from summer recess.

But will the pay gap ever close as the law calls for, even if the current national emergency, meaning the war on terrorism, concludes?

Don’t count on it.

President Bill Clinton declined to grant the full pay raise in 2000, saying it “would invite serious economic risks,” despite peace and a budget surplus.

“Every administration has indicated that they have serious concerns about flaws” in the law, says Barbara L. Schwemle, the CRS analyst who wrote the report.

So the law’s promise of near-parity in pay with the private sector remains unfulfilled.

One part of the law presidents have been certain to follow is the section that authorizes them to issue alternative — that is lower — pay plans if Congress has not passed salary legislation. The law “authorizes the president to fix an alternative level of locality-based comparability payments if . . . the president considers the level that would otherwise be payable inappropriate,” notes the CRS report.

If the president or Congress take no action, Schwemle says the higher pay increases automatically would take effect. But no one expects that to happen.

The law was intended to make the pay of federal workers “substantially equal, in the aggregate, to those of non-federal workers for the same levels of work in the same locality,” Schwemle wrote in the report. That, of course, is crucial in Uncle Sam’s effort to keep Frank and Flo happy.

Government service, of course, provides other benefits, both material and intangible, that the private sector doesn’t. The desire to serve the public keeps many workers in government even if the pay is lower than what they could earn elsewhere. And in today’s economy, jobs in the private sector are not as plentiful or as stable as they once were.

The security Uncle Sam provides is worth a lot — but 31 percent?

Diary associate Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Joe Davidson can be reached atfederaldiary@washpost.com.