Pay & Benefits

Lawmakers are looking at ways to cut fed pay

A conservative caucus of House members released Feb. 6 its list of recommendations for bettering government operations, which back many Trump administration proposals to scale back federal pay and benefits while making the hiring and firing of employees easier.

The Power, Practices, Personnel: 100+ Commonsense Solutions to Better Government report — lead by Republican Study Committee Chairman Mike Johnson, R-La., and the committee’s Government Efficiency, Accountability and Reform Task Force Chairman Greg Gianforte, R-Mont. — argued that the government wastes taxpayer funds by retaining complex processes for removing poor performers and guaranteeing pay that rewards tenure rather than performance.

The report calls on Congress to pass the MERIT Act, introduced June 2019, which would reduce the time to remove a federal employee to 30 days, limits retirement offerings for feds that commit felonies during their federal service, prohibits union appeals to the merit Systems Protection Board for adverse actions, and enables managers to recoup bonuses paid to employees that were found to have committed workplace violations.

In addition to removing employees more easily, the report’s proposals would curtail automatic steps up the career ladder for feds.

“The Task Force urges Congress to statutorily reduce the federal government’s reliance on annual step increases. Managers should be given reasonable discretion to determine how employees progress up the GS pay scale based on performance,” the report said.

“As a first step to accomplishing this, the extent to which a federal employee’s compensation automatically grows over every year by virtue of advancing one 'step’ should be cut in half. Savings from doing so should then be used to give discretion to the manager to award raises to those employees that deserve them based on their job performance and increase managers’ authority to reward annual bonuses.”

The proposals would also phase out the Federal Employee Retirement System’s pension plan, which provides employees with a set annuity based on their highest three years of pay, to a purely Thrift Savings Plan approach, which operates more like private retirement investment plans.

“The other weakness of the federal compensation system is the bloated benefits package the federal workforce receives. Not only are these benefits expensive to fund, they tend to mask the true costs of the workforce and further fuel a compensation system lacking performance incentives,” the report said.

The RSC’s call for readjusted pay systems stems from 2017 findings by the Congressional Budget Office that determined that federal workers were compensated 17 percent more than their private sector counterparts on average.

But the accuracy of those findings has been repeatedly questioned, as they conflict with other reports even from within the federal government, such as the Federal Salary Council’s 2019 report that feds make nearly 27 percent less than those in the private sector.

The CBO study focuses on education level, comparing how much a federal employee with a certain degree makes when compared with someone of the same education in the private sector. High school educated feds therefore tend to make more than those in private sector work, whereas feds with doctoral degrees make less.

But the federal workforce is on average far more educated than the private sector workforce, as the percent of feds with advanced degrees is more than double that percent in the wider workforce. Federal employees also more frequently work in professional occupations than the private sector, which “generally require more formal training or experience than do the occupations more common in the private sector,” according to CBO.

Federal workers also tend to be older on average and therefore further along on the career ladder.

One area where the RSC report differs from prevailing Trump administration policy concerning federal employees is in its outlook toward the 12 weeks of paid parental leave recently granted under the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

President Donald Trump recently celebrated the passage of such a paid parental leave policy in his Feb. 4 State of the Union Address, calling on Congress to further extend the leave requirement to all U.S. workers.

“On its face this may seem like a prudent act designed to allow the federal government to compete with the private sector for personnel. However, when viewed in the context of overall federal paid leave policy, this only adds to an already bloated compensation and benefits system for federal workers in comparison to private sector workers,” the report said.

“The GEAR Task Force recommends that lawmakers make the newly available 12 weeks of parental leave count against existing paid leave days. Additionally, lawmakers should phase in a reduction in the total amount of traditional paid leave days to match the 29 days available in the private sector.”

RSC argued that federal employees already have access to an over-sized bank of leave for vacation time, sick leave, donated leave under the voluntary leave transfer program, leave without pay, alternative work schedules, credit hours under flexible work schedules, compensatory time off and telework; however, it is important to note that many such offerings come with restrictions that prevent employees from accessing leave without meeting certain requirements.

The report also went one step further than the Trump administration in its treatment of the official time offered to federal employee unions to conduct certain business. Under a series of executive orders, Trump cut that official time down to a fraction of its previous use, but the RSC proposal would make using such time at all a fireable offense.

RSC also called on Congress to expand hiring and retention pilots conducted at individual agencies, that would give subject matter experts more input on potential hires and expedite the overall process.

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