- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

When federal workers get their regular January pay raise, what you see isn’t always what they actually get.

For instance: There is a 3.9 percent pay raise working its way through Congress, even though Congress isn’t back at work until Sept. 8. Depending on how the locality-pay bean-counters read government-industry pay data, many feds, particularly the huge chunk in the Washington-Baltimore region, are likely to get much more than the base increase. If the raise is set at 3.9 percent, the increase for feds here could be in the vicinity of 5 percent.

Reason: There are actually two pay calculations for each January raise. The president and/or Congress sets the initial amount. After that is approved, the president typically earmarks one percentage point of that raise for locality pay. And this is where it gets complicated.

Pay experts take private-sector wage data from selected occupations from 32 metro areas, ranging from big cities such as Richmond. They then massage that data to give federal workers in those metro areas raises designed to make Uncle Sam as competitive as the president and Congress permit.

The result of a regular and a locality raise is that feds in many high-wage cities (as indicated by the Houston is paid more than a similar-grade fed here. The differences can be from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars a year.

But back to the what-you-see-isn’t-what-you-get department. In January 2008, the federal white-collar pay raise was set at 2.5 percent. But after locality pay was factored in, civil servants in Calif., and 3.1 for Houston.

The 2.5 percent basic raise for Phoenix-based feds came out to 3.88 percent after locality numbers were crunched in.

Finding people who can understand the federal pay-setting system set up in 1990 is difficult. Finding someone who can explain it, and get it right, even to an audience of NIH doctors is even tougher.

“The system wasn’t designed to make people crazy” a now-retired pay specialist said. “But it can have that effect. Trying to make sense of it is a zero-sum game. You probably won’t.”

He blamed the Clinton administration for derailing what was supposed to be a pain-free system (and formula) that was designed over time to close or narrow the “gap” between federal and private-sector raises. Feds were supposed to get the 2-in-1 catchup raises each year, over a 20-year period, that would painlessly close the gap as defined by the government.

‘FERS flu’

Feds hired after the mid-1980s don’t get credit toward retirement for their unused sick leave. These employees, the majority, are under the Federal Employees Retirement System.

Workers under the old civil service retirement system can - once they are otherwise eligible to retire - tack on unused sick leave to increase their service time, and the value of their pension. But FERS doesn’t allow that, which is why many workers burn up sick leave the year prior to retirement. Call it “FERS flu.”

But that could change under a House-passed bill by Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, that would give FERS employees the same right to credit unused sick leave toward service time for retirement purposes.

Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey@federalnewsradio.com.

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