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Workers Chafe As Obama Reins In Raises

Joe Davidson | The Washington Post via YellowBrix

December 02, 2009

President Obama will win no fans among federal workers with his action to limit their pay increase next year to 2 percent.

That’s a long way from the 18.9 percent average raise Obama said many government workers would have received using a complicated statutory formula designed to make federal pay more comparable to private-sector compensation.

“Our country continues to face serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare and most Americans would not understand or accept that Federal employees should receive an average pay increase of 18.9 percent while many of their fellow citizens are facing employment cutbacks or unemployment,” he wrote in a letter to Congress.

That 18.9 percent can be confusing. It’s the amount needed to almost close the pay gap with the private sector as required in a law presidents have bypassed for years. No one expected the raise to be that high. But federal workers did want to match the 3.4 percent increase those in the military are scheduled to get, or at least the 2.9 percent that had been discussed in Congress this year. Civilian raises also will not vary by locality next year as they have previously.

Although federal workers appreciate how difficult it is for so many people, they also agree with John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, who said “the unwillingness to provide pay parity and to limit civilian pay raises to just 2 percent sends the wrong message to workers who have believed in President Obama’s promise to honor public service.”

Pay is one of relatively few areas in which federal unions have parted with Obama. They have praised his appointments and appreciated his support of their priorities. Compared with Bush administration relations, the president and union activists generally march to the same drummer, though Obama sometimes moves too slowly for their taste.

In addition to the pay dispute, union leaders were upset when an Obama administration panel called for reconstruction of the Pentagon’s pay-for-performance operation rather than its destruction. But labor got what it wanted when Congress voted to abolish the National Security Personnel System.

The president cited his authority to submit an alternative to the large pay increase in case of a “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare.” A national emergency has existed since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said. And with an extended war on terrorism (though this administration doesn’t use that term), the national emergency apparently won’t end, either.

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