Skimpy pay raises for federal workers a worry for Obama budget director

Obama's fiscal 2015 budget calls for a 1 percent raise for federal workers. Recent years have been worse, with pay freezes. There's no 'crash' yet in workforce quality, but OMB Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell worries it could happen.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Office of Management and Budget Director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell speaks at a Monitor breakfast for reporters on Friday, March 7, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Federal workers can be a favorite punching bag. Government shutdown? Furlough? Frozen pay? No problem, many Americans say, suggesting that those employed by Uncle Sam (outside the military) are overpaid and underworked.

The White House's budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, sees things differently, and she has made maintaining and developing a high-quality federal workforce a top priority as head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – a problem that needs to be addressed now, she says.

“It’s a very challenging issue,” Ms. Burwell told reporters Friday at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “I can’t tell you the point in time when we crash. It’s important enough we need to bear down.”

President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal, released Tuesday, calls for a 1 percent pay raise for federal workers and includes a new initiative to improve workforce hiring and development. Civilian federal workers got their first pay increase this year – 1 percent, by presidential executive order – after three straight years of frozen pay.

The pay freeze, last fall’s partial government shutdown, and unpaid furloughs resulting from across-the-board spending cuts have all tried the patience of the federal workforce, which numbers a bit over 2.7 million people. Burwell says the federal government is still attracting high-quality people to its workforce, but attrition is a concern. The question is when and if there will be a “crash.”

“You see people getting ready to make choices,” Burwell continued. She says she hasn’t seen numbers showing “high-potential people” leaving at a much higher rate. “So I’m not sure when it’s going to happen,” she says. “I just want to prevent it.”

Burwell acknowledged that she thought long and hard before agreeing to move to Washington, D.C., last year to head OMB. Before that, she was president of the Walmart Foundation in Bentonville, Ark.

“I sat there with the yellow pad and like, OK, what are the pros and cons, what will be the things that will be difficult, let me think through this before we make a decision as a family,” said Burwell, who is married and has two young children.

Burwell says that when she got to Washington, she realized she had underestimated the impact that the budget battles had had in her department. “OMB had more furlough days than any other department or agency in the federal government,” she said. “Then OMB not only participates in the shutdown, we run most of the shutdown.”

The uncertainty takes a toll. Look at the federal employee survey scores, she says. “Those are scores we have to work on and change.”

Burwell was asked why the budget requested only a 1 percent raise for federal workers, and didn’t stake out a higher number, such as 2 or 3 percent, and then negotiate down.

“Wouldn’t 3 percent be nice,” she said. But “the question of how it relates to strategy is actually how it relates to reality in terms of numbers.”

Proposing a federal pay increase above 1 percent would have meant cutting other areas that are priorities, too, such as veterans benefits. She doesn’t know yet if the 1 percent pay increase will meet opposition on Capitol Hill.

The federal government employs 2 percent of the nation’s workforce, and in fact is at a 47-year low, as a percentage of the total workforce. In August 1966, the federal government had 2,721,000 civilian employees, or 4.3 percent of the workforce. In September 2013, before the shutdown, the figure was 2,723,000 employees, or 2 percent.

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