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Federal worker bonuses cut in half, new figures show

May. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By SHANNON MULLEN The Asbury Park Press   |   Comments
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As a result of budget cuts, bonus pay for 1.3 million federal workers dropped by nearly 50 percent last year. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Bonus pay for 1.3 million federal workers fell off a proverbial fiscal cliff last year, dropping nearly 50 percent as a result of draconian budget cuts tied to a partial government shutdown and recent caps on employee awards.

In all, the federal government paid $176.6 million in employee performance awards, down from about $332 million in the 2012 fiscal year, according to a review of federal payroll data by the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey newspaper and an affiliate of Federal Times.

The database, which covers about three-fourths of the federal work force, is available online at, the Press’ free, searchable public records website.

A perennial target of criticism, bonuses for federal workers pay have been on the decline since 2011, when government bonuses totaled $439 million.

Since then, the Obama administration has capped spending on discretionary bonuses to no more than 1 percent of an agency’s aggregate salaries of rank-and-file employees, and no more than 5 percent of the aggregate salaries for its senior executives.

Last year, with across-the-board sequestration cuts looming, the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies to cancel most discretionary bonuses that weren’t required by law.

The directive had a dramatic effect, the data show. Several agencies, including the Secret Service, the Social Security Administration, the Public Buildings Service, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, gave out virtually no bonuses last year, the Press found.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, the departments of Agriculture, Justice, Treasury and Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Management and Budget, among others, all reduced performance awards by between 60 and 88 percent.

Despite the demands of responding to superstorm Sandy, employees of Federal Emergency Management Agency saw their bonus pay drop from $10.9 million to just $1.8 million, a decrease of more than 80 percent.

The Internal Revenue Service saw a 92 percent reduction, though it reversed plans to cancel bonus pay for front-line union employees this year to avoid litigation.

On the flip side, bonus payouts rose in a handful of agencies that weren’t subject to the OMB directive, including the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which was up 166 percent, to $2.1 million from 2012.

A spokeswoman for the FHFA, which was exempt from the sequestration rules because the agency is funded through assessments on the financial entities it regulates, explained that the increase was due to lump sum payments to higher-paid employees made in lieu of salary raises.

The total number of federal employees who received bonuses fell sharply, from 360,000 in 2012 to about 155,000 last year, a decrease of 57 percent.

Also last year, the administration pulled the plug on the Presidential Rank Awards, which have annually rewarded members of the Senior Executive Service, or career government executives, for exceptional performance with bonuses of between 20 and 35 percent of their base salaries.

Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said the canceled awards, on top of last year’s furloughs, a three-year pay freeze and higher health insurance contributions, made for a demoralizing year for SES members.

Even with the limits on bonus pay last year, a dozen federal employees received performance awards of more than $50,000 each. Half of those — including three government attorneys — received bonuses of $62,895, the top amount handed out last year.

The agency that paid out the most in bonuses was the Patent and Trademark Office ($33.8 million), followed by the Veterans Health Administration ($27.3 million), Customs and Border Protection ($22.1 million) and the Federal Aviation Administration ($18.5 million).

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