President Obama’s proposal of a pay freeze for federal employees is a small step towards curbing government spending. However, a closer look shows there is less to it than meets the eye. In fact, many federal employees will still see their salaries increased.
While Obama’s plan would stop the annual across-the-board cost of living adjustment (COLA) for all federal workers, it will not stop workers from getting raises altogether. The freeze will not affect pay raises for job classification upgrades. As an official at the Office of Management and Budget told Federal News Radio, “employees will still be eligible for step increases.”
Step promotions — also known as “within-grade increases” — are mandated by statute. They are nearly automatic as long as an employee performs his job adequately. The law governing federal employee pay states, “a within-grade increase shall be effective on the first day of the first pay period following completion of the required waiting period and in compliance with the conditions of eligibility.”
Here’s how the system works. Over 70 percent of the federal workforce (except for the military and postal workers) is paid according to the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) General Schedule (GS) pay scale. GS includes 15 wage grades that reflect the category and skill necessary to perform a job, with 10 steps within each grade.
According to OPM, new employees can expect to receive a step increase every year, mid-level employees every two years, and senior employees every three years. Step increases can range from $728.00 for a GS 3 to $3,321.00 for a GS 15. Grade increases can range from $2,214.00 for a GS 1 to GS 2 to $14,931.00 for a GS 14 to GS 15. These numbers represent the ‘base’ amount for federal pay. The government gives a percentage increase for different areas of the country to reflect local variations in cost of living.
For example, despite the pay freeze, a government employee living in Washington, D.C., who is classified as a GS14 Step 1 and is upgraded to a GS 15 Step 2, will receive a raise of $22,672. The next year that same federal employee — without a promotion or grade increase — can see their pay go up by $4,126 through a step increase.
Even more importantly, the freeze would probably have happened anyway. Increases in federal pay and government assistance are calculated based on rising prices and higher costs. In October, the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced there would be no automatic COLA increase for the 58 million Americans receiving Social Security benefits.
SSA explained that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported “no increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the third quarter of 2008, the last year a COLA was determined, to the third quarter of 2010.” In other words, an increase was not necessary because prices over the last few years have remained static. This would also apply to federal workers. Many federal employees would still receive step increases but not a COLA.