The Trump White House has once again called for a federal employee pay freeze, this time in the 2020 budget proposal it sent to Congress this month.
According to the budget proposal’s analytical perspectives, the freeze would contribute to the modernization of the federal workforce, or “strengthening” as the proposal puts it, by making payment increases more contingent on performance than length of federal service.
“The administration believes in aligning pay with an employee’s performance where possible. The existing federal salary structure rewards longevity over performance,” the proposal said.
“This is most evident in the tenure-based ‘step-increase’ promotions that most federal employees receive on a fixed, periodic schedule without regard to whether they are performing at an exceptional or merely passable level. (They are granted 99.7 percent of the time.) The Budget proposes to slow the frequency of these step increases, while increasing performance-based pay for workers in mission-critical areas.”
The budget proposal retraces many of the same arguments that the Trump administration used to justify a federal pay freeze in 2019, which was overturned by Congress in the eventual 2019 budget legislation signed in February.
That pay increase of 1.9 percent has not been implemented over a month later, however, as President Donald Trump has yet to issue an executive order instructing the Office of Personnel Management to begin processing paychecks with the higher rates.
Democratic Senators have already sent a letter to the White House to inquire after the timeline of that pay increase.
“At the very least, OPM and the White House should communicate openly with their own workforce about when federal employees can expect the raise to start showing up in their paychecks,” National Treasury Employees Union National President Reardon said in a statement. “Obviously, we think they’ve waited long enough.”
Data from federal agencies on pay parity between the federal government and private sector are conflicting, with the Federal Salary Council finding that feds see an over 30 percent difference on average between their paychecks and those of comparable positions in the private sector.
Conversely, an April 2017 Congressional Budget Office study found that employees with a high school diploma or less made approximately 30 percent more than their private sector counterparts, and those with a master’s degree or more made less.
The answer to that disparity may come down to the concentration of higher-level education in the federal workforce, compared to the private sector.
According to September 2018 Office of Personnel Management data, approximately 20 percent of the federal workforce has a master’s degree or more while that number is only 12 percent in the wider U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 Current Population Survey.
In fact, according to a table published in the 2020 budget proposal and derived from several Current Population Surveys, high-paid occupations such as lawyers, doctors and scientists make up about 37 percent of the general workforce, while they make up about 60 percent of the federal workforce.
In essence, the federal government on average draws on a more highly educated and traditionally well-compensated talent pool for its workforce than the private sector.
“At a time when this administration touts a strong economy and private-sector wage growth, President Trump’s budget request to freeze federal employee pay in 2020 defies logic, exacerbates the federal government’s long-documented recruitment and retention challenges and, quite frankly, shows nothing but disdain for millions of hard-working public servants still recovering from the unnecessary 35-day government shutdown,” National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association National President Ken Thomas said in a statement.
“I urge Congress to intervene and authorize a reasonable pay raise during the appropriations process.”
The White House budget proposal is likely to be thoroughly altered before becoming congressional funding bills, but it indicates that Congress will have to proactively legislate a pay increase for feds in order to circumvent the freeze.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.