Federal Worker Pay-Freeze

Lest I be accused of an anti-Obama bias . . . I applaud President Barack Obama’s (D) proposal to freeze federal workers’ salaries for the next two years.

Most private-sector workers in the United States have gone without pay raises for the last two years without any serious reduction in their tax burden, so it stands to reason that federal workers should also have to survive without raises. I don’t say this because I hate federal workers—heck, my sister and many of my closest friends are employed by the U.S. federal government—I simply don’t think federal workers should get raises when almost everybody else in the country has to do without. I don’t think Obama’s proposal goes far enough, however, to resolve the serious problems with the federal workforce that have gone unresolved through many Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.

I spent eight years of my life as a federal contractor (three years part-time and five full-time) with the Department of Treasury and civilian offices in the Department of Defense. I saw both extremes of the federal workforce. In my anecdotal experience, about 30 percent of federal workers are awesome, dedicated people who take their jobs very seriously and work very hard. They understand that they have taken on a public trust, and give their absolute best efforts in service of the taxpayers. The remaining 70 percent, however, ranged from mediocre to the worst ‘do-nothing’ stereotypes with-which federal workers are so often condemned. It was constantly disappointing to me as a contractor how pervasive poor performance was in the government workforce, and how poor performers were constantly auto-promoted into positions of more and more responsibility that they simply did not deserve.

Because of union-won promotion policies, those awesome workers stood an equal chance of getting promoted as-compared to the mediocre and downright awful workers. Because of this, the same 70/30 breakdown is pretty consistent from the lowest to the highest levels of government. I am sure that we could reduce the cost of operating our federal government by probably 20 percent or more just by implementing a simple merit-pay system: eliminate auto-promotion and only promote workers who perform above expectations and/or show leadership potential. More importantly, fire workers who do not perform. This is almost impossible under the current system. It is easier and faster to get bad employees promoted or transferred to other offices than it is to get them fired. Thus the term, ‘failing upward.’

Basically it boils down to this: federal workers shouldn’t have things much better than the people who pay their salaries. Federal salaries shouldn’t be set by coerced and inflated union contracts, but should be directly tied to national-average salaries and benefits. If it were up to me, I would average the national salaries and benefits and then give federal workers a 10 percent premium above that as a thanks for their public service (with cost-of-living adjustments by region). Pretty simple. If we had a permanent, direct, codified link between federal salaries and private-sector salaries, then Obama wouldn’t have needed to announce a salary freeze; it just would have happened on its own based on private sector performance.

Obama’s freeze is a great start, considering the dearth of private sector salary increases, but his ‘freeze’ doesn’t stop merit-less step increases or undeserved promotions. It basically puts a hold on annual cost-of-living increases. I support it, but there’s a lot more to be done to ensure we get appropriate performance out of our tax investment in the federal workforce.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.