Federal pay freeze would hit more than 200,000 Marylanders

Obama proposal affects non-military workers for two years

November 29, 2010|By Paul West, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — — More than 200,000 Marylanders are likely to be hit by a two-year pay freeze for federal workers announced Monday by President Barack Obama.

The proposal, which appears headed for congressional approval, would affect the state disproportionately: The percentage of Marylanders in civilian federal jobs is three times the national average.

The state legislature's top fiscal analyst predicted an "adverse" effect on Maryland's revenue growth. Local economists said a freeze would hurt the state's recovery — and could foreshadow federal job cuts.

"This is a pretty big deal for the Maryland economy," said Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "I think this is a very good political move for Obama but one with bad economic consequences for the region."

If approved, the freeze would extend through the end of 2012 and affect all federal civilian workers, including those employed by the Defense Department, but not military personnel. A total of 261,000 Maryland residents hold civilian federal jobs, according to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's office.

The news drew shrugs from some of the state's federal employees.

"I'll just tighten a little more," said Lindsey Branch, who has worked at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn for 15 years. She spoke of dropping cable television and her landline telephone. "There are things I can cut back on and it's not going to impact my lifestyle too much."

But John Gage of Baltimore, who heads the nation's largest federal employee union, called the freeze "a joke." He said he was particularly disappointed that Obama had resorted to what he called a well-worn tactic of treating federal workers as "sacrificial lambs."

"I expected more from this president than just superficial stunts, and it looks like he's really just caving in in the face of some political pressure" from Republicans, said Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "You're not going to make up for two wars and the financial sector's collapse by cutting federal pay."

In brief remarks at the White House, Obama said sacrifices will be needed to reduce the federal budget deficit "and I'm asking civil servants to do what they've always done — play their part."

The president made the announcement one day ahead of his first post-election meeting with top House and Senate Republicans. Reducing the $1.3 trillion deficit is expected to be a top item on the agenda, and Republicans had pushed for cuts in the federal work force during their successful 2010 campaigns.

House Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a longtime ally of federal workers, said government employees should not be immune from the belt-tightening that millions of American families have experienced during a period of persistent joblessness.

But the Southern Maryland lawmaker said he wished the wage freeze had been extended to military personnel in non-combat jobs, in order to spread the sacrifice and increase overall budget savings. Hoyer said "a piecemeal approach" to budget-cutting is the wrong way to reduce the deficit.

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Baltimore said federal workers "should not be made into scapegoats" and also called for a more comprehensive plan to cut the budget. But like other Maryland Democrats, she stopped short of saying she would fight the president's plan.

Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Baltimore, who has made federal workers a major focus of his work in the House, said he "will be carefully monitoring how this freeze is implemented to ensure that it does not imperil critical government operations."

An official of the president's Office of Management and Budget said the freeze would save the government between $2 billion and $3 billion a year for each of the next two years. Federal pay scales would be frozen but workers who qualify for promotions would be able to move up.

Near the Social Security Administration's national headquarters in Woodlawn, workers seemed to take the news in stride.

Shelly Green and Bernadette LePore, who work in information technology for the SSA, said they expected the proposal. After all, Social Security recipients didn't get a cost-of-living increase, either.

"I would have been surprised if we did get anything," LePore said.

"I think we all have to do our part," Green said. "In private industry, I have lots of friends who haven't gotten raises for years. It is what it is." She added that she was happy that the military would still be receiving raises.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley sought to play down the impact of the freeze on the state. The spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, noted that Maryland's roughly 79,000 state workers have endured three consecutive years of furloughs, and said a pay freeze is preferable to layoffs.

"In that regard, what the president announced today will not have a dramatic impact on Maryland's recovery," he said.

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