WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump once again has advocated freezing federal employee salaries in 2019, a position the House already has effectively endorsed but that the Senate has rejected in favor of a 1.9 percent average raise.
Trump’s position, stated in a letter Thursday to Congress, is a routine move at this point in the budget process because no decision has been made regarding a pay raise for federal employees come January 2019. Under the complex federal pay law, in that case such a message must be issued by the end of August to prevent a much larger raise from taking effect automatically should no decision be made by the end of the year.
“Under current law, locality pay increases averaging 25.70 percent, costing $25 billion, would go into effect in January 2019, in addition to a 2.1 percent across-the-board increase for the base General Schedule. We must maintain efforts to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases,” Trump’s letter said.
The move is yet another shot across by the bow by the Trump administration against the federal workforce. A judge recently overturned key parts of the executive orders designed to restrict what kind of work union officials can do while working in federal jobs, limit the issues that can be bargained over with federal unions, and make it easier to fire poor performers.
In his February budget proposal, Trump had advocated a freeze on federal salary rates — what would be the first freeze since one that was in effect from 2011 to 2013. In the years since, Congress has taken no position on a raise, allowing the annual “alternative” raise specified in similar letters — first from President Barack Obama, and then last year from Trump — to take effect by default.
That congressional strategy of action by inaction has resulted in raises in the 1 percent to 2 percent range each year for employees in the General Schedule, the pay system covering most white-collar federal employees below the executive levels. Blue-collar employees have received equivalent raises, varying by locality, while raises for high-level employees are linked to performance ratings.
The House in July passed a spending bill that would continue the recent pattern by remaining silent on the issue. But the Senate soon afterward passed its own version of that bill containing a 1.9 percent raise. It advocates paying a 1.4 percent raise across-the-board for General Schedule employees and parceling out the remaining 0.5 percentage points in differing amounts, varying by locality.
The House and Senate must resolve their differences in an upcoming budget conference. In a policy statement as the Senate voted on its version, the Office of Management and Budget said it was “concerned” about inclusion of a raise but didn’t threaten a veto.
If a raise is paid, the Washington-Baltimore region — where federal salaries are a major factor in the economy — would stand to receive one of the larger amounts. A similar 1.9 percent boost paid early this year resulted in a raise of just below 2.3 percent in that locality pay zone, which encompasses much of Maryland and northern Virginia and reaches into eastern West Virginia and south-central Pennsylvania.
Under a defense bill already signed into law, uniformed military personnel stand to receive a 2.6 percent increase in January.
In his letter, Trump repeated an argument in his original budget proposal that “Federal employee pay must be performance-based, and aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining, and rewarding high-performing Federal employees and those with critical skill sets. Across-the-board pay increases and locality pay increases, in particular, have long-term fixed costs, yet fail to address existing pay disparities or target mission critical recruitment and retention goals.”
“This is a deeply disappointing action and one more indication that this administration, in this economic environment, simply does not respect its own workforce,” National Treasury Employees Union president Tony Reardon said in a statement.
The budget proposal sought creation of a $1 billion fund to reward high performers and pay incentives for hard-to-fill positions. But Congress has not acted on that concept, which the White House has not explained in detail.