Area has that left-out feeling

Newswatch.. . on federal workers

December 19, 1990|By Mick Rood | Mick Rood,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- It came as no surprise when President Bush ordered special 8 percent raises for federal employees in the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas last week.

And while union leaders hailed the move -- taken under authority granted Bush in the new pay comparability act to help agencies in areas with recruitment-retention problems -- lawmakers in the Baltimore-Washington area felt left out.

When Bush signaled early on that he wanted to aid the three cities, key members of Congress, including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, made sure that there was language in the pay comparability act to allow other areas to be considered.

However, the administration ignored the latitude given it and went with the original three.

In a blink, six of the eight Maryland representatives and the two senators got together to send a letter to the White House. The letter began:

"We were extremely concerned . . . that the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore metropolitan areas were not included in the order."

Hoyer and fellow Maryland Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd; C. Thomas McMillen, D-4th; Beverly B. Byron, D-6th; Kweisi Mfume, D-7th; and Constance A. Morella, R-8th, plus Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, joined in. They argued that Baltimore-Washington government workers met the criteria set out in the pay bill. One was having 5,000 or more government employees.

The District of Columbia and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs "deserve priority consideration simply on size alone," said the congressional letter writers. D.C. has more than 200,000 federal employees. The legislators added that Baltimore has more on the government payroll than most larger cities. (With more than 30,000 General Schedule employees, it ranks third behind Washington and Philadelphia.)

"We trust you will agree with us that the case is clear for also including Washington and Baltimore among the areas to receive the differential and we ask you to consider the matter carefully," the letter said. "The continued effective, efficient workings of our national government depend on it."

Widely speculated, if not expressly stated by the president, is one criterion Bush obviously considered but lawmakers left out of their letter: An 8 percent raise added on to the regular, annual pay increase (4.1 percent this year) would have cost around $1 billion in Baltimore-Washington. The raise for New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco federal employees will cost a fraction of that.

What a difference a backyard makes for Democratic Rep. Dean Gallo. His northern New Jersey district falls within the New York metropolitan area and thus qualifies for the 8 percent raise coming in his federal constituents' February pay envelopes.

"Private industry does not make the mistake of overpaying workers who live in Terre Haute, Ind., while starving those who work in high-cost-of-living areas such as New Jersey," Gallo crowed in a press release.

"In New Jersey, the federal government has become a training ground for the private sector, where salaries are as much as 30 percent higher for comparable, skilled positions."

During House debate, Gallo got assurances from the pay bill's managers -- Hoyer among them -- that suburban, as well as urban dwellers could qualify for such special raises.

A. Paul Kidd, a member of the Northern New Jersey Federal Executive Board, like Gallo, took a geographical swipe at a locality where federal pay stretches further.

"We all know that the cost of living in places like Tupelo, Miss., is a lot lower than in places like northern New Jersey," Kidd said.

In the same pay order mandating the 4.1 percent increase for the overall work force and the 8 percent increase for federal employees in the three cities, Bush carried out pay increases approved in 1989 for top-level government executives. Senior officials will get raises of $22,000 to $29,000.

Despite the populist outcry, members of Congress now will be getting $125,100. Vice President Dan Quayle will be getting $160,600 annually. The president's pay remains frozen at $200,000 with $50,000 in expenses -- where it has been since 1969.

The locality pay machinery to catch federal employees up with the private sector won't start unfolding until 1992. After that, however, the president retains much authority to limit locality pay increases.

Still, the first steps forward are apparently enough for union leaders.

"Both Congress and the administration deserve much credit for recognizing the deteriorating desirability of federal employment and setting aside their partisan differences in order to enact such farsighted legislation," said John N. Sturdivant, president of the 700,000-member American Federation of Government Employees.

The Bush pay order is a "welcome boost," Sturdivant said.

Rival union leader Robert M. Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, sounded a similar note that it is "a good beginning." But Tobias was leery about the satisfaction of the moment.

"The fact remains, however, that pay for non-executive federal employees in many areas still lags far behind their colleagues in the private sector," he said. "We have a lot of work to do in the next Congress to begin to rapidly close that gap and we must work equally hard to bring locality pay increases to all those who deserve them."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are on vacation. Their column on politics will resume Jan. 3.

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