By Brendan Pringle
In an unprecedented move, President Trump cancelled all automatic raises for federal employees for the coming year.
The president’s money-saving move could cost government’s 2.1 million civilian workers an average of $1,640 per year in lost income — while saving taxpayers some $3.8 billion per year. Those raises were set to take effect in January 2019.
No previous president—including President Obama, during the 2009 financial crisis—has zeroed out federal-wage increases since the current pay arrangements took effect in the 1970s.
Automatic pay increases, President Trump said, are “inappropriate” given the record-setting national debt, which is set to climb past $20 trillion by 2020. For the first time in American history, federal debt will be larger than the entire U.S. economy.
Federal civilian workers earn much more than their private-sector counterparts, on average. Comparing wages alone, the average federal civilian grossed some $88,800 in 2016 compared to an average of $59,400 per year among private-sector workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Federal benefits are also more lavish than those earned, on average, in the for-profit sector. When salaries and benefits are combined and averaged, public-sector workers earned $129,200 in 2016 while private-sector employees earned only a combined $70,700.
Given the large pay gap in favor of federal workers, the president said he saw little risk that cancelling wage hikes would harm the government’s ability to attract qualified candidates.
The way the president halted automatic raises was by setting both cost-of-living increases and high-cost city salary adjustments to zero for the coming fiscal year. Trump, or a future president, could undo this wage freeze with a simple administrative order. “Specifically, I have determined that for 2019, both across-the-board pay increases and locality pay increases will be set at zero,” Trump said. “These alternative pay plan decisions will not materially affect our ability to attract and retain a well-qualified federal workforce.”
Trump has said he has far reaching reforms in mind. Instead of the across-the-board system that rewards every worker equally– no matter how hard or dangerous their work or how much their productivity has improved over the past year–Trump seeks a system that matches pay with individual performance.
The president is pushing for pay policies that are “aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining, and rewarding high-performing federal employees and those with critical skill sets.” Across-the-board pay hikes, and locality pay increases, the president said, have failed to solve “existing pay disparities or target mission critical recruitment and retention goals.”
The president’s pay-trimming has made some GOP lawmakers unhappy, especially with congressional elections fewer than 60 days away. More than 280,000 federal workers live in the DC metropolitan area, many of which reside in the northern Virginia.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican who represents a large swathe of northern Virginia suburbas, wrote a letter to the President on August 31 asking him to reverse his decision on automatic pay hikes. Rep. Comstock later said in a press release that Trump is “reportedly reconsidering this decision.”
U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart, a Republican challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, also pleaded for Trump to change his position. “About 200,000 #Virginia residents are federal workers; as I travel the state this #LaborDay weekend, Virginians are saying they’re glad @realDonaldTrump is giving the federal pay raise another look,” said Stewart in a tweet that was later retweeted by President Trump.
— Corey Stewart (@CoreyStewartVA) September 1, 2018
Trump seemed to change his tone on the issue after receiving this pushback from allies in his party.
“I’m going to be doing a little work over the weekend,” Trump told an audience in North Carolina on August 31. “I’m going to be studying, you know, the federal workers in Washington that you’ve been reading so much about. People don’t want to give them any increase.”