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Fed salaries still increasing, even through pay freeze

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The average federal salary increased nearly $1,000 last year — from $77,505 in fiscal 2011 to $78,467 — according to statistics posted online by the Office of Personnel Management yesterday.

How can that be, you ask, when federal pay has been frozen for more than two years now? The increase highlights a point we’ve made several times — that the pay freeze isn’t actually a total pay freeze. It’s a freeze on the pay scales. Within-grade step increases — which bump many feds up to a higher level of pay every one, two or three years — were left untouched by President Obama’s pay freeze, as were promotions. This means that hundreds of thousands of federal employees have still gotten pay raises, despite the pay scale freeze.

In all, the average federal salary has gone up  $1,881 since the freeze began. In fiscal 2010, the average pay was $76,586. The freeze did slow down the rate of increase, however — between fiscal 2008 and 2010, before it went into effect, the average federal salary increased more than $5,000.

When I wrote Federal Times’ story on the freeze in December 2010, I estimated these step increase raises during the (then two-year) pay scale freeze would cost the government at least $2.5 billion. These numbers tell me I drastically underestimated that figure, partly because I had no way to estimate how many feds would get promotions. If 2.1 million federal employees got, on average, $1,881 in raises, that comes close to $4 billion.

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OPM’s Berry: ‘We are close to the edge of the cliff’

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

As we reported yesterday, the members of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations sounded a red alert Wednesday on the state of the federal government’s recruiting and retention efforts. With the ongoing pay freeze, furloughs, sequester budget cuts and threats to cut benefits, union leaders and administration officials alike fear the federal workforce could crack under the pressure. Longtime feds with decades of experience could throw in the towel and retire, they fear, and talented young up-and-comers could conclude that the federal government isn’t a good place to work and take their skills elsewhere.

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry capped the discussion with an impassioned — and apparently impromptu — speech, which made it clear he has had it up to here with the constant attacks on federal employees. It was particularly striking because Berry’s public persona is usually so cheerful and optimistic, and it drew applause from the rest of the council. Following are lightly-edited excerpts of Berry’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks:

I will in closing make a few points, if you would indulge me. I know that this council, if anything, I’m preaching to the choir.

85 percent of our workforce is outside of Washington. The workforce today is the same size it was when Lyndon Johnson was president, and yet we have 60 million more Americans. Don’t talk to me about efficiency. Only in this town can on one day a discussion be held and the [Government Accountability] Office dragged me over the coals on skill gaps, and the fact that we cannot hire people to fight cybersecurity in this nation, and the president in the State of the Union message making clear that we are facing essentially a pre-9/11 situation with cybersecurity, and we can’t hire people? And yet the next day, have the Congress adopt the third year of a pay freeze. And no one see a connection between those two points.

Only in Washington.

I don’t know what straw breaks the camel’s back, but I can tell you this: We are close to the edge of the cliff. And all public policy officials, whether they be Republican or Democrat, need to be exercising extreme caution. We cannot recruit and retain a qualified workforce by freezing their pay forever. We cannot do it by changing their retirement plan on an annual basis. We cannot do it by denigrating public service. My father served at Guadalcanal, the 1st Marine Division. He was one of the lucky few to make it off alive. And he pointed out to me, even though I did not serve in the military, that the oath I took when I joined federal service was the exact same oath he took when he put his life at risk for this nation’s liberty.

Shame on anyone who would hold that oath as something not worthy of respect. And that’s what we need to get back to in America, where we respect service. Where we respect people who will put their lives on the line for their country. Where we respect those who will suffer for their neighbor and focus on making their lives and their quality of lives better. We need to get back to that. And I know that every member of this council shares that vision. And I know the president does as well.

My commitment to you is: we will use this forum to advance that message. Public service matters, and God help the Republic the day that that is no longer a true statement.

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House Rules committee to consider extending pay freeze Wednesday

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The House Rules Committee will meet Wednesday afternoon to consider a bill that would extend the pay freeze through the rest of 2013.

HR 273 — sponsored by Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and 27 other Republican lawmakers — would cancel the 0.5 percent pay raise now scheduled to go into effect at the end of March.

And one proposed amendment to the bill — introduced by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Geo. — would go even further, and freeze pay until the end of 2014. That would mean a four-year pay scale freeze for federal employees.

Federal employee groups denounced the bill.

“A vote in favor of HR 273 is a vote to continue the freeze on pay for those who guard our borders, ensure that food supplies and medicines are safe, and provide services to your constituents every day,” National Treasury Employees Union National President Colleen Kelley said in a letter to House members Tuesday. “America’s workforce lives with constant threats of government shutdowns and furloughs and [agencies have] fewer and fewer resources as a result of budget cuts. Despite what supporters of this proposal may say about respecting the work of federal employees, blocking a modest pay raise of 0.5 percent for dedicated public servants who are working under a 27-month pay freeze sends quite the opposite message — that neither they nor their work are viewed as important to our nation.”

Joseph Beaudoin, national president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, called the bill “nothing more than another direct attack on hardworking public servants.”

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Continuing resolution with pay freeze heads to House floor

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The House Rules Committee just approved H J Res 117, the six-month continuing resolution that will keep the government up and running until March 27. The bill now heads to the House floor for a vote, which could come as early as tomorrow.

The bill also contains a provision — requested by President Obama, and denounced by federal unions — further freezing federal pay until an actual budget is passed.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., testified before the Rules Committee and called the bill “basic and necessary legislation that must be in place before the end of the fiscal year” Sept. 30. But he also said it is “not good governance” and “risky for the nation’s financial future” to keep funding the government on temporary continuing resolutions that only extend current spending levels, and not by passing actual budgets.

The Office of Management and Budget issued a Statement of Administration Policy before the vote that backed the bill as “reflecting a compromise.”

The Rules Committee also passed HR 6365, the National Security and Job Protection Act, which would undo the defense — but not the domestic — sequestration cuts now set to go into effect in January. OMB also issued a statement strongly opposing that bill, and recommending that Obama veto it.

“The bill’s unbalanced approach breaks the agreement reached in the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011 and fails the test of fairness and shared responsibility,” OMB said. “HR 6365, which contains no elements of compromise, fails to replace the entire sequester in FY 2013, fails to eliminate any of the reductions beyond FY 2013, and fails to ask the most fortunate Americans to pay their fair share.”

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Yet another pay freeze: what do you think?

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President Obama’s decision to extend the pay freeze — at least until Congress passes a 2013 budget — has been condemned by labor leaders. Federal Times would like to find out what you think about the prospect of an even longer pay freeze. How will it affect you? Will it make you more likely to retire? What do you think is driving Obama’s decision?

Write me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, that’s fine.

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AFGE’s new ad opposing pay freeze: ‘Explain it to me, GOP’

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Click to enlarge. (Courtesy of AFGE)

The American Federation of Government Employees is stepping up its campaign against House Republicans who want to further freeze federal pay to cover the cost of a payroll tax extension. AFGE this weekend will launch a nationwide series of television and print ads titled “Explain It To Me, GOP,” that wonder how cutting federal pay and benefits will help the economy recover.

The ad seeks to put a face on federal employees who lawmakers often discuss in general — and sometimes disparaging — terms. It features members of AFGE locals — a Minnesota Veterans Affairs Department nurse, an electronics worker at the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, and a corrections officer at the Miami Federal Detention Center — speaking about their not-exorbitant salaries and very real household expenses.

Republicans on a payroll tax conference committee are pushing for a one-year extension to the federal pay freeze, but Democrats have rejected that proposal. House Republicans have also attached a proposal to cut federal retirement benefits and increase the amount feds pay for their pension to a transportation bill.

What do you think of AFGE’s ad? Will it help sway public opinion, or will it fall on deaf ears?

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House passes pay freeze bill, but it’s already dead

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The House last night passed a bill paying for a payroll tax cut extension with a further pay freeze and steep cuts to federal retirement benefits. But that bill has almost no chance of actually becoming law.

The Senate will consider the House bill, but the Democrats controlling that chamber won’t pass it (for many reasons, but largely because it would speed up approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline). Even if the bill did make it through both houses of Congress, Obama yesterday pledged to veto it.

Time is running out for Congress to extend the payroll tax cut. It’s going to expire at the end of the month, but lawmakers are scheduled to skip town after Friday. It’s unclear what will happen next, but if Congress does strike a quick compromise on this, there’s a good chance a pay freeze will be included.

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Lieberman: Get ready for extended pay freeze

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Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., has some bad news for federal employees: The pay freeze is probably going beyond 2012. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe this morning reported that with the government facing budget cuts, a further pay freeze is regretful, “but I think it’s necessary right now.”

Lieberman’s suspicions track with those of Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who last month said the supercommittee’s failure to reach agreement on deficit reduction made an extended pay freeze more likely, though not certain.

O’Keefe reports that Lieberman similarly qualified his pay freeze prediction by saying “I think it’s a strong probability. You never know until it happens.” In October, Lieberman proposed freezing pay for a third year to help cut the deficit.

Meanwhile, the House is set to vote tonight on a payroll tax extension bill that would freeze pay for a third year and increase the amount federal employees contribute to their retirement by 1.2 percentage points. Read about that bill, and its plans to create a new category of retirement for new employees, here. Obama today pledged to veto the bill, which he said “plays politics at the expense of middle-class families.”

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Pay freeze bill goes down in flames

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The bill that would have extended the federal pay freeze through 2015 didn’t even come close to clearing the 60-vote threshold required to break a filibuster this evening. Only 20 senators this evening voted to move forward with S 1931, but 78 voted against it.

But even though this bill, which also would have extended the payroll tax cut, isn’t going anywhere, its introduction should alarm federal employees and their advocates. The GOP leadership is clearly looking at a further pay freeze to free up money for other priorities. And Obama’s unwillingness to draw a line in the sand against more years of no pay raises doesn’t bode well for feds.

We’ll keep an eye on this issue — keep reading.

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Obama mum on further pay freeze — will he support extension?

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The White House just released a Statement of Administration Policy opposing Republican Sen. Dean Heller’s bill, S 1931, to extend the payroll tax holiday, which would also extend the current two-year pay freeze to five total years. But what I found most interesting is what’s not in this SAP: An clear statement from Obama outright opposing the pay freeze extension.

Sure, the White House bashes Heller’s bill for not asking millionaires to “pay their fair share” (IE, raise taxes on them, as Democrats support), not expanding the payroll tax cut from $1,000 to $1,500, and adding new budget cuts that would “reduc[e] core government functions ranging from services for this nation’s veterans to border security, and further cutting back spending on the nation’s defense.”

But the pay freeze is not explicitly mentioned anywhere. Eeeenteresting. By refusing to bash Republicans for considering a three-year freeze extension, is Obama leaving himself wiggle room to back one or two more years of frozen pay?

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley just told me the bill could come up for a vote tomorrow. This thing’s moving fast. Stay tuned for further developments — and hold onto your wallet.

UPDATE: Heller’s office says the bill could be voted on tonight.

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