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Federal workers' pay gains slowest in 10 years

Dec. 27, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By DENNIS CAUCHON   |   Comments
Despite a partial pay freeze, federal employees still did slightly better in pay than workers in the private sector or at state and local governments.
Despite a partial pay freeze, federal employees still did slightly better in pay than workers in the private sector or at state and local governments. (Federal Times)

The paychecks of federal workers grew at the slowest pace in a decade this year, held down by a partial pay freeze. But federal employees still did slightly better than workers in the private sector or at state and local governments, a USA Today analysis found.

Federal pay rose an average of 1.3 percent for the budget year that ended Sept. 30, according to newly released federal data. By comparison, the wages of private workers rose 1.2 percent during the period, the same rate as state and local government pay growth, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

None of the wage gains kept pace with inflation.

The federal pay numbers are the first full budget-year results since President Obama canceled automatic cost-of-living pay hikes in 2011 and 2012. Federal employees still get raises for longevity, merit and promotions. But 2.1 million civil servants did not get a scheduled 0.9 percent inflation adjustment this year, saving the government about $2 billion a year, or a 1.1 percent across-the-board pay hike scheduled for Jan. 1.

House Republicans want to continue the partial pay freeze through 2013. "We very much oppose extending the freeze. Federal employees have already made a sacrifice," says Julie Tagen, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.

Federal workers made an average $75,296 in pay last year, plus $28,323 in medical, pension and other benefits, the USA Today analysis found. That's about 60 percent more than the average private wage, a difference explained largely by higher education levels and more professional jobs in the federal workforce.

Federal compensation has soared in the past decade, especially in the past five years, at a time when private wages and employment have sputtered.

Newly hired federal workers are starting at much higher salaries than those who did the same jobs in the past, a lift that has elevated the salaries of scientists and custodians alike.

A 20- to 24-year-old auto mechanic started at an average of $46,427 this year, up from $36,750 five years ago. The government hires about 400 full-time auto mechanics a year.

A 30- to 34-year-old lawyer started at an average of $101,045 this year, up from $79,177 five years ago. The government hires about 2,500 lawyers a year.

And a mechanical engineer, age 25 to 29, started at $63,675, up from $51,746 in 2006. The government hires about 600 mechanical engineers a year.

The higher pay reflects the more challenging jobs federal workers often do. The Bureau of Prisons' 1,250 cooks earn an average of $66,225 a year. "They don't just cook meals. They're also correctional workers supervising inmates," says spokeswoman Traci Billingsley.

Other findings in a USA Today analysis of federal workers' pay:

Workers are holding on tightly to their federal jobs in the weak economy. The rate of quitting has fallen 29 percent since 2007. Ordinary retirements are down 11 percent. Early retirements are down two-thirds. Disability departures have dropped one-third. Layoffs are increasingly rare, too. Under Obama, layoffs from reorganizations have dropped by two-thirds to fewer than 300 a year in the 2.1 million person workforce. Workers are 13 times more likely to die of natural causes than get laid off from the federal government.

The portion of federal workers earning $100,000 or more grew from 12 percent in 2006 to 22 percent in 2011.

The Veterans Affairs started paying physicians market rates in 2006. VA doctor pay doubled to an average $200,604 in 2011. The raises reduced spending on bonuses and outside contracts, helping the VA add more than 5,000 doctors, says VA's Brian McVeigh.

Dennis Cauchon reports for USA Today.

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