Federal Pay and ‘Fairness:’ What It Means for the Federal Workforce

The White House, Mitt Romney, and federal employee unions all have their own definitions as to what is “fair” regarding federal workers’ compensation. That debate is likely to continue as the election season intensifies.

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney named Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as his vice presidential pick Saturday. The announcement has put the budget plan that Ryan released earlier this year back into the spotlight.

Since the federal workforce was a featured line item in Ryan’s budget, this will likely resurrect some debate over what are “fair” expectations regarding pay and benefits of the federal workforce.

What might the Romney-Ryan team mean for federal workers? In a word: Cuts.

The Path to Prosperity (the name of Ryan’s budget plan) proposed the following:

  • A 10% federal workforce reduction over the next three years through attrition
  • Extending the current pay freeze through 2015
  • Increased pension contributions

Regarding the last item, Ryan said in a press conference when the budget proposal was released that federal workers should have to pay half of their pensions themselves. Ryan believes this to be a fair contribution for the pension benefit provided to the federal workforce by the government.

Federal unions immediately decried the budget plan as “unfair” upon its release. In a letter from March 2012, the Federal-Postal Coalition urged House members to vote against Ryan’s budget plan on behalf of federal employees. The letter said, in part, that the proposal unfairly targeted federal workers with its proposed spending cuts.

The notion of what is “fair” generally lies in the eye of the beholder.

Federal unions and many federal employees think the proposed cuts are unfair; Mitt Romney has called federal pay “unfair”. In a campaign speech in April, he said, “…We will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the taxpayers they serve.”

Romney’s campaign web site states that one of his goals as president will be to “align federal employee compensation with the private sector.” For Romney, this is the fair thing to do.

The White House believes that it is fair to offer federal employees a 0.5% pay increase in 2013. Even though the pay freeze was enacted under the current administration, the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement earlier this year that the pay freeze should end in 2013, noting that a permanent pay freeze “is neither desirable nor sustainable.”

However, the budget proposal released by the White House for 2013 proposed increasing the contribution federal employees make towards retirement by 1.2% over three years.

Clearly these are the fair things to do for the federal workforce from the White House’s standpoint.

Among all of these proposals, which is “fair?” That is for you to decide.

Regardless of one’s position on the issue, the collective history indicates that this debate isn’t going away anytime soon. What is considered “fair” compensation for the federal workforce has become a political hot topic during a time when the country is facing a rapidly growing budget deficit amidst rising federal spending. For better or worse, federal employees seem to have become the public face of the entity doing all of the spending (the government) which makes them a politically popular tool used by both political parties to earn votes.

Of course, the problem with using fairness as the premise is that all interested parties have their own definition as to what is “fair,” and the one that comes up with the short end of the stick after the decision gets made will loudly decry that the outcome is “unfair.” That, as the saying goes, is why life is often “unfair.”

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.