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Federal Salary: It’s About Principles, Not Pay

In case you missed it, the latest study from the official Federal Salary Council (FSC) asserts that white-collar federal employees (“feds”) are paid a whopping 35% less than their private sector equivalents. Are federal executives really being short changed by more than one-third of their salary versus private sector peers?

Feds don’t work in government to get rich. It’s not about pay, but principles. First and foremost, the principle of dedicated public service to America.

Yet public recognition and respect for feds has been in short supply. Rather than being viewed positively by the public, feds are often vilified by politicians, the news media and private industry — all of which drive negative public perceptions of government.

And while feds certainly don’t expect to receive anything within the stratosphere of a 35% pay hike, is a mere half of 1% unreasonable and inappropriate?

Thankful for Feds

While feds too frequently receive a bad rap, the tide may be slowly changing. Tom Fox of the Partnership for Public Service recently told the DorobekINSIDER on GovLoop: “Right now in particular, despite some of the negative perceptions and stereotypes of federal employees, there are a lot of folks that are very thankful for federal employees. People that were affected by Superstorm Sandy in particular were able to see how FEMA, HHS and other agencies were able to quickly and effectively step up to the plate.”

President Obama’s FY 2013 budget proposal to hike federal pay by a scant one-half of 1% should not be grounds for controversy. Rather, there should be unity in Washington to give feds a little bit of recognition and respect. In addition to the President, the largest federal employee unions (AFGE and NTEU) and some members of Congress deserve credit for caring about the federal family enough to defend it against constant calls to slash pay and benefits.

Great Pay Debate

The so-called Great Pay Debate has been raging in Washington for years. Yet the basic question at issue remains the same: how does the salary of feds compare with their private sector counterparts in similar jobs?

It turns out that such a seemingly innocuous question has no easy answer. It depends upon whom is asked.

According to the Washington Post: “The Federal Salary Council’s newly released annual report comes as federal pay again has come under scrutiny while political leaders look for ways to prevent automatic spending cuts that otherwise will take effect in January. Other studies using different methods and different sets of data have reached widely varying results, with several conservative think tanks saying that federal employees enjoy an advantage of roughly the same size on average—and more, if benefits are taken into account.”

What’s the end result? The Post reports, “Disputes over pay comparisons have continued all year, with the Government Accountability Office in mid-year concluding that no one approach is definitive.”

It’s too bad that with so much bickering and number crunching from all sides, the GAO has still failed to offer a proposed solution to the pay debate.

More Work, Shrinking Staff

Feds are under no illusions regarding fiscal austerity in government; we deal with it on a daily basis. Many feds must juggle multiple jobs simultaneously with shrinking staff, often taking on work duties that were once handled by two or more employees.

While feds feel fortunate to serve America during good and bad times, the fact is that federal salaries have been frozen solid for the past two years. Thus, a pay increase of .05% would represent at least some recognition and respect for federal public service.

Yes, even a token gesture during these tough times could help boost low morale government-wide. Moreover, higher employee morale results in greater productivity, engagement and efficiency, while reducing absenteeism and disengagement.

Pay Freeze = Pay Cuts

Why do feds feel frozen out? While some in the general public may not realize it, the pay freeze has actually resulted in pay cuts for feds because annual salaries can’t keep pace with inflation – like cost-of-living increases, or COLA for Social Security recipients, for example.

Again, feds are not trying to strike it rich by working for Uncle Sam, we just want a fair deal. To reiterate, most feds place a premium on public service to America over issues of personal pay. Yet this truism may often be misunderstood or overlooked by the news media, politicians and the public – explicitly or implicitly — further tarnishing the brand image for feds generally.

Unconventional Problem Solving

In essence, the Great Pay Debate comes down to conventional problem solving. Afterall, isn’t that what our elected lawmakers are supposed to do in Washington?

But in today’s Washington, unconventional and uncooperative are too often the default positions. Still, why has this particular issue of federal pay become such a perennial problem? It’s certainly not for a lack of data-driven studies, theories, analysis and debate.

While federal pay comparisons with the private sector may involve some complicated math, it’s certainly not rocket science. Feds give 100% effort to public service every day of the year across the country and overseas.

Thus, a minuscule pay raise totaling one-half of 1% would be a move in the right direction — especially after two consecutive years of feds being frozen out.


* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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David B. Grinberg

Government Executive reports today:

“A bipartisan group of lawmakers — all representing areas heavily populated by federal employees — has a message for President Obama and colleagues in Congress: Leave the federal workforce alone. The nine House members, all representing districts in Washington, Maryland or Virginia, said federal employees have “paid their fair share…”

The Washington Post reports:

“The coalition calculates the budget savings from the freeze at $60 billion. Another $28 billion came out of employees’ pockets from a delayed 2013 pay raise that has been off until at least the spring. New hires must contribute more to their retirement, an expense estimated by the unions at $15 billion.”

Federal Times reports:

“The American Federation of Government Employees sent letters Nov. 14 to every member of Congress stating that already approved cuts will reduce feds’ pay and benefits by $103 billion over the next 10 years and that any future legislation should spare federal employees. “To date, federal employees and their families are the lone group of Americans who have made sacrifices to deficit reduction,” Beth Moten, AFGE legislative and political director, wrote in the letter.”

David B. Grinberg

From the Washington Post Letters to the Editor:

By Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Are federal workers fairly paid?
” In the first line of their Nov. 19 op-ed, The truth about federal pay, Andrew G. Biggs and Jason Richwine asked, “Should federal workers get a raise?” The answer is an unequivocal yes. These workers continue to serve our nation well, despite a pay freeze for more than two years, even as they face, like all Americans, a continuing rise in costs for health care, gas, groceries and other necessities. Federal workers have seen $103 billion in compensation reductions since 2011. More broadly, the argument that federal workers are overpaid falls under the weight of the flawed methodologies underpinning them. The human-capital approach favored by the op-ed authors is unsuitable for setting pay in that it compares demographic and personal attributes of workers. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study, comparing the work being performed, clearly has greater validity. Federal employees have borne a disproportionate share of deficit reduction — a 27-month pay freeze, increased pension contributions and increased workloads due to agency budget cuts. It is time to end the pay freeze and spread the sacrifice beyond our dedicated public servants and their families.”

David B. Grinberg

Federal News Radio reports:

OPM survey: …Pay freeze ‘taking toll’ on employee satisfaction

“Pay frustrations at heart of lower satisfaction. Employee satisfaction scores — what OPM deems the global satisfaction index — are derived from four factors: satisfaction with employees’ jobs, agencies and pay, as well as how likely they are to recommend their organization as a good place to work. Overall, satisfaction slumped downward, compared to 2011 levels, to 63 percent. The key driver in the lower satisfaction scores was a four-point drop in satisfaction with pay, which hit 59 percent — the lowest level since 2004. Federal employees are now entering thei third year of a pay freeze supported by the White House and many congressional leaders.”

Henry Brown

OPM Survey is available at OPM (caution 10.5 MB download)

One Can read it online

From the Press Release:

However, stresses on public servants – including continued tight budgets and pay freezes – are reflected in our Global Satisfaction indicator

Lindsey Tepe

Thanks for sparking this conversation, David! I found your comments about the inability to agree on a methodology for comparing salaries to be very compelling. Especially when it comes to compensation, we can all get a little defensive if we feel that we’re not getting a “fair shake”.

It seems to me that until we can agree upon a consistent way to compare salaries across sectors – ensuring it reflects all facets of compensation such as paid sick leave and fringe benefits, as well as relevant experience and level of education – this conversation will continue to be a polarizing one.

Sadly, it seems like that is the case on a wide number of current issues – if we can’t agree on the facts, how can we fairly debate them?

Carmen Waldo

Being new to this forum, I’m not sure who all sees it, but I suspect it’s primarily federal employees. My question is how do we get this message out to the general public and their elected leaders? As federal employees, we already know the impact that the freeze has had on us, and we already know that a lot of us do what we do for idealistic reasons. How do we get that message out so that the people who have a say in what happens with our pay and benefits better know and understand what’s going on? I don’t have to be convinced that I’m being negatively impacted by the freeze (especially while living in an oil boom statewhere the price of EVERYTHING has increased exponentially in the last 3 years, and no locality pay!) – I’m living it! It’s the guy down the street who is suddenly making 6 figures ++ who doesn’t want to pay a cent more in taxes that needs to be convinced. And, by the way, he’s also the one who can afford to contribute to political campaigns like never before –

I understand that the article starts out by emphasizing the pay disparity for federal executives, and I’m not an executive – I’m the “boots on the ground” employee at the farthest budgetary point from DC, but I think the talking points apply across all levels of federal service.

David B. Grinberg

Government Executive reports:

Employee morale dips as commitment to mission holds steady

“Satisfaction with pay continued to drop among federal employees, who are in the midst of a two-year pay freeze, extended until at least March 2013. A little less than 59 percent of employees reported satisfaction with their pay, down from 62.5 percent last year and 65.8 percent in 2010. Less than 22 percent said pay raises at their agencies depended on how well workers performed their jobs.”

David B. Grinberg

Federal Times reports today:

Debt deal should spare employee pay and benefits, labor coalition urges

“Federal employees should be spared further reductions in pay and benefits, a labor coalition told congressional leaders Monday. The Federal Workers Alliance, a group of 20 unions, said in a letter: Over 10 years the freeze on federal base pay scales in 2011 and 2012 will cost employees $60 billion in lost earnings, while an increase in pension contributions for federal employees hired after next month amounts to another $15 billion, according to the letter.”

Also check out today’s Washington Post Federal Diary: Readers speak out on pay, morale

David B. Grinberg

Today’s Washington Post reports on 5-year fed pay freeze proposal.Fed Diary columnist Joe Davidson writes:

Federal employee leaders have denounced the GOP budget document, which “freezes federal pay through 2015,” for a total of five years, and calls for federal employees to make an unspecified “more equitable contribution to their retirement plans.” It also calls for reducing the workforce by 10 percent through attrition by 2015. Although a current freeze on basic federal pay, which began in 2011, and other hits to their compensation are already costing federal workers $103 billion over 10 years, the Republican budget says they are “immune from the effects of the recession.”

David B. Grinberg

Government Executive agrees in article:

Money insn’t the top motivator for feds

“Federal managers can improve employee engagement and motivation with non-monetary tactics such as offering workers more independence and a diversity of responsibilities, according to a new study.The Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent, quasi-judicial agency that serves to protect federal employees, found in its survey of more than 42,000 federal employees that a majority of respondents feel motivated at work, but in times of potential benefit cuts and continued pay freezes, supervisors must find new ways to engage employees…”

Henry Brown

Always has been that way…. IMO part of the problem, is how does one improve employee engagement and motivation in management ranks! Would offer that the phrase “do as I say not do as I do” as at least some relevance here.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the insightful info, Henry. As always, you raise several excellent points.

I would suggest that more managers do the following to boost employee engagement and increase morale:

1) Don’t micromanage.

2) Embrace work-life programs, such as telework and/or flexible work arrangements.

3) Adopt more motivational practices, such as positive feedback and reinforcement.

4) Promote more teamwork to get employees out of their silo mentalities.

5) Foster internal communications to enhance information sharing, inclusion and interoffice collaboration.

6) Embrace new workplace technologies, such as BYOD or similar programs.

What do you think?

David B. Grinberg


The President’s FY 2014 Budget Request includes a 1% PAY HIKE FOR FEDS –but also proposes to raise pension contributions…

The Washington Post reports:

  • “President Obama issued a strong defense of federal employees in the budget, along with something they have not seen lately — a pay raise.”
  • “The 1 percent raise for 2014 isn’t much, but it’s better than the three-year freeze on their basic pay rates that continues through the end of the year.”
  • ” If the 1 percent hike is little standing alone, it is even less when coupled with another proposal to increase employee pension contributions with no increase in benefits.”
Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

I cannot agree more, “Feds don’t work in government to get rich. It’s not about pay, but principles. First and foremost, the principle of dedicated public service to America.” It is time to give Federal employees a moderate pay increase. It is a way to show appreciation to those who selflessly serve the public and to show younger generations and potential public servants that Federal workers are appreciated and valued. I hope each agency looks at where the cut can be but cutting expenses via furlough is a bad personnel practice as it affects the morale of the entire workforce and impacts productivity and overall performance efficiency and effectiveness. Anyway, I hope that we will see a raise in 2014! Feds deserve a recognition so they will continue to serve the public with pride and confidence.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for your comments, Phuong, nicely put.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since this post first appeared — in fact, as you point out, the pay situation for feds has only gotten worse with the sequester and furloughs.

Let’s hope for the best in FY 2014 and beyond. Eventually the tide will turn, although it may not happen until we get a new Congress that actually values — rather than denigrates and demonizes — the hard work of loyal and committed federal employees. At a minimum we deserve a little respect.

Thanks again, Phuong.