Citing Past Problems With Other Pay Schemes, AFGE’s Cox Warns Lawmakers Against Trashing Federal Pay Grades

WASHINGTON–Citing past problems, including discrimination against women and minorities, with so-called “merit” pay schemes tried in the Defense Department and a handful of other agencies, AFGE President J. David Cox is warning lawmakers against trashing federal pay grades.

But whether the ruling Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee – or the ruling House GOP in general – will pay attention to the head of the union that represents most federal workers is open to question.

That’s because a private study from the Booz Allen Hamilton consultants and a report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, both discussed at the same July 15 hearing where Cox testified, recommend trashing the federal pay grades, called the General Schedule (GS) in favor of “merit pay,” “pay for performance” and the like.

The issue of federal pay is important to the 2 million federal workers and their families.  That was particularly evident, Cox testified, when the combination of a 3-year pay freeze followed by unpaid furloughs due to GOP-imposed budget cutting – called sequestration – and the government shutdown all imposed hardships on workers in what were middle-class jobs.

Pay cuts ranged from 7 percent to 11 percent last year alone, Cox testified.

Speaking of the shutdown, Cox told lawmakers that “for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who have no savings and live paycheck to paycheck, the delay in receipt of their paychecks had real consequences.

“Whether they had to buy groceries with a high-interest credit card, had to pawn valuables, or whether they actually fell behind on rent, car payments, daycare, child support, or other obligations, the delayed paycheck coming so soon after the reduced paychecks from sequestration furloughs put them over the edge.

“I heard from parents who lost their daycare slots, families who were evicted from their apartments, workers whose cars were repossessed.  These are real people who suffered real harm, not pawns on a political chess board, and the leaders who were elected to represent them, had let them down.”

And studies show the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System, imposed by the GOP George W. Bush government, led to pay discrimination against women and minorities before a successful AFGE lawsuit and its lobbying of lawmakers resulted in NSPS’ demise.  Whites, men and workers whose defense agencies were physically closer to the Pentagon benefited and everyone else got hurt, Cox testified, citing those reports.

Trashing the GS and replacing it with a pay system where workers’ pay is at the bosses’ whim, as happened in the NSPS, would be a rerun, Cox said.  “The road to hell is paved with good intentions and we have no intention of repeating the disaster that was NSPS,” he stated.

“But the architects of NSPS have not given up the dream of a subjective pay system for the federal government, one in which managers can decide each employee’s salary and whether and by how much that salary will be adjusted each year.  The most recent attempt to revive NSPS came this spring, when contractor Booz Allen Hamilton” which got 98 percent of its $5.8 billion in 2013 revenue from federal contracts, advocated that goal in a report “under the imprimatur of the Partnership for Public Service.

“The report trods the well-worn path of those seeking lucrative contracts to revamp the federal personnel system,” Cox said.  “It employs the hackneyed tropes that have become all too familiar: The General Schedule is ‘stuck in the past,’ ‘broken,’ ‘rigid,’ and ‘fragmented.’   They conveniently neglect to acknowledge the fact that numerous flexibilities and modernizations have been enacted over the past few decades,” he pointed out.

That includes city-by-city labor-market-by-labor-market cost of living adjustments, broader hiring authorities for agencies, management bonuses, bonuses for recruitment and relocation and student loan forgiveness.  Though Cox did not mention it, the management bonuses at the VA, where he worked as a nurse for decades, led managers to lie about treatment of veterans.  Their lies produced the current scandal there.

“The list of new flexibilities is long, and in many cases, these new authorities have improved the General Schedule,” Cox said.  “In any case, the list stands as a refutation of the myth that the General Schedule is a relic, untouched by modernity or that Congress has failed to address needed changes in the civil service system for decades on end.”

-PAI