- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

If living costs jumped 3 percent just in the past nine months, then how can Uncle Sam, who invented the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), justify a smaller federal pay increase for next January? That’s what many working feds want to know.

This January, civil servants in Washington and Baltimore, the largest concentration of U.S. workers, got a 3.44 percent raise. That exceeded the increase in inflation for the year.

The White House wants to limit both the raises and the COLA to a total of 2.2 percent in January. Congress is setting up a legislative end run that, if successful, would produce a 2.7 percent increase next year.

Key to the question (if not the answer) is that retired federal and military personnel already are guaranteed a 3.1 percent COLA in January. And that will be worth even more if living costs rise either this month or next month.

The relatively short answer to the pay raise vs. COLA question is this:

The federal pay raise is based on a law (largely ignored by the past two presidents) that computes private-sector wage changes using a formula that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud. It puts Congress and the White House in the driver’s seat and pits them against each other.

Pay raises that the law produced over the past dozen years are more than Presidents Clinton and Bush proposed, but less than called for by the law signed by President Bush’s father.

Raises for retired feds and military personnel (linked to the Social Security formula) are automatic. They are triggered by an increase in the Consumer Price Index over the 12-month period starting September.

If your head aches, welcome to the club.

Bottom line: Politicians set the pay raise, whereas price increases on goods included in the CPI determine the COLA adjustment for government, military and Social Security retirees.

The system can and does produce federal pay raises that often are higher than the rise in inflation or, like this year, that are likely to be lower. But regardless of how much more you are paying at the pump, for a latte or for prescription drugs, a raise is a raise and a COLA is a COLA and never the twain shall meet.

Working from home

Efforts to maximize the number of feds who telecommute has been less than a resounding success. Despite a push from Congress and some agency heads, many managers are reluctant to let employees out of their sight — maybe, in some cases, for good reason.

The dozen-plus federal and commercial telework centers in the Washington area are rarely more than half-full. Even a tough nudge from Congress — meaning some agencies can be fined for failing to hit their telework goals — hasn’t put a dent in the daily rush-hour nightmare here.

Some feds say the much-publicized loss of data — names, addresses and Social Security numbers — from lost or stolen laptops could set back the telework program at places such as the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Mother Nature may have come to the rescue of teleworking programs. The rains that shut down the Internal Revenue Service headquarters and four other federal buildings may have given teleworking a new lease on life.

At the IRS, 2,400 employees had to find new work sites, at home or in other U.S. buildings. It will be another month before their offices are ready (as in dry enough) for renovation.

In the meantime, employees who never might have been given a chance to telework or work from home are doing it. IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said the federal continuity-of-operations plan was a big help.

The plan was set up after the September 11 attacks to ensure government work and services continue even if offices are shut down or destroyed by hurricanes, floods, earthquakes or terrorist attacks.

Next stop: Congress needs to find out which agencies are paying lip service to teleworking by fudging their who’s-teleworking figures. In some offices, employees say people allowed to telework as little as one day per year are listed as teleworkers. The idea is to keep Congress off their backs by appearing to make their numbers.

Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or [email protected]

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