COLA’s, Housing Costs and Lawsuits: How Pay is Determined for Some Federal Employees

Federal employees outside of the contiguous 48 states are paid differently than most FedSmith readers who usually get an annual raise and locality pay. OPM did a survey on housing costs in these areas outside the 48 contiguous states and has published the results.

At FedSmith, we probably see more e-mail on the subject of pay and pay-related issues than any other. Last year at this time, we ran an article on COLA’s for federal employees outside the contiguous 48 states and generated considerable comments from employees in those areas–most of them expressing unhappiness with some aspect of the pay rate system.

Federal employees in Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean area have a different pay system than those in the “lower 48” states. The across-the-board pay raises and the locality pay raises that are routine for most readers do not apply in these areas. Instead, they get a cost-of-living increase based on surveys comparing local expenses (housing, utilities, food and transportation) with similar expenses in the Washington, D.C., area.

To show just how happy some of these employees are about their pay, a lawsuit was filed on the issue in 2000. OPM settled the lawsuit and started new cost-of-living studies. All of these surveys attempt to fix a problem brought in an August 2000 class-action lawsuit from federal employees in noncontiguous states who contended their pay did not reflect their economic reality. OPM settled the lawsuit and began new cost-of-living studies in those areas.

OPM has now issued the results of its latest survey. The new survey was a research project to determine if the housing survey was accurate. In effect, OPM uses market rental data for homes to determine the cost of shelter in each area and there were concerns that the survey data were not accurate.

The COLA areas are divided into three regions–the Alaska, Pacific, and Caribbean regions. The Alaska region is composed of the Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau COLA survey areas. The Pacific region is composed of the Honolulu County; Hilo and Kailua Kona, Hawaii County; Kauai County; Maui County; and Guam COLA survey areas. The Caribbean region is composed of the Puerto Rico; St. Croix, USVI, and St. Thomas/St. John, USVI, COLA survey areas.

Despite the new survey, there is a good chance that employees in these areas will not be happy. Their goal, presumably, was to receive more money from Uncle Sam. The purpose of the new survey was to compare owner estimates of the rental value of their homes with market rents for comparable housing in terms of quality and quantity.The results : “OPM will not adjust COLA survey rent indexes to account for homeowner shelter costs. OPM does not see a need to conduct additional … surveys at this time.”

In effect, there was not enough of a difference between rental estimates and market rates to justify extra cost-of-living adjustments for federal employees affected by the survey results.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47