Supplemental pay raise sought
WASHINGTON -- Maryland federal workers struggling to keep up with the high cost of living deserve an emergency pay raise, said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Mikulski has introduced legislation that would give federal employees in the Baltimore and Washington areas an 8 percent raise to supplement the across-the-board pay increases Congress approved last year.
As part of that pay reform package, President Bush approved a one-time 8 percent raise for federal workers in the New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. But Mikulski said Baltimore-Washington area federal workers face living costs that are just as high and should not have been left out.
"Every month, federal employees in this area face a tough reality," Mikulski said. "They open bills that reflect some of the highest costs in the nation -- for housing, for food, for other necessities -- then open paychecks that are significantly less than those of their neighbors working for private employers."
The legislation would affect about 130,000 federal workers in the Baltimore and Washington regions, who, according to union officials, are hard-pressed to meet the escalating costs of housing, food and transportation. For all practical purposes, Baltimore's housing costs are as high as the District of Columbia's, they said.
"I think the gap between housing in D.C. and housing in Baltimore is definitely narrowing," said John Gage, president of Baltimore's Local 1923 for the American Federation of Government Employees.
A recent study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, confirms that living costs in the region are 7.5 percent to 9 percent higher than the national average.
Meanwhile, salaries for federal workers in the Baltimore and Washington areas lag nearly 20 percent behind comparable jobs in the private sector, according to the GAO. Mikulski noted that last year's pay reform package ensures that all federal salaries eventually will be based on local living costs.
Meanwhile, the emergency 8 percent raise would give federal workers in the region some temporary relief. Mikulski's bill has been co-sponsored by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and is strongly endorsed by Maryland House members.
Gage said federal workers "desperately need" some type of pay supplement. At the Social Security Administration, Gage said higher workloads and more difficult working conditions over the last decade have made it harder to retain qualified staff members.
"We can't hire more people," said Gage. "Our buildings are falling apart. We don't have equipment. We really need some relief. I am just afraid that people are going to say, 'It's not going to get any better, and I'm going to get out.' "
Even as the public rallies around troops returning from Operation Desert Storm, the administration is shortchanging veterans from past wars, charge federal workers unhappy with the Bush budget.
The president's 1992 budget proposal does little to correct chronic shortages in funding for the nation's Veterans Affairs facilities, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, which pointed to serious equipment and personnel shortages coupled with rising medical costs.
AFGE officials presented congressional leaders recently with an "Independent Budget" compiled by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and other veterans organizations. Veterans advocates said the Independent Budget, which was prepared for the fifth consecutive year, reflects the VA's needs more accurately than the president's.
"We looked at our [independent] budget as what the VA needs just to keep its head above water," said Jim Magill, a VFW spokesman. Magill said the veterans' Independent Budget comes in about $1 billion higher than the $33.2 billion the president has proposed for the VA in 1992.
Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs counter that the Bush budget includes a $1 billion increase for the VA's health-care costs,
A recent GAO report on drug testing for federal workers raised so many questions that Sen. Barbara Mikulski thought President Bush should know about it.
The Maryland Democrat joined Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., recently in sending a letter to Bush that highlighted concerns raised in the report, including inequities in the government's system for testing federal workers.
Among other problems, the report found that some federal workers were fired immediately when they tested positive for drugs, while others were given a second chance. In the letter, Mikulski and DeConcini called on Bush to act quickly to correct inequities in the drug-testing program.
"We want a war on drugs, not a war on federal employees," Mikulski said. "We are ready to work with the president on an action plan for federal drug-testing policies that set reasonable costs, realistic expectations and respect the drug-free service of the vast majority of our dedicated federal workers."