Wage-grade employees' pay cap may be lifted


WASHINGTON -- Despite a tight federal budget, there's a small chance that the 15-year-old pay cap on wage-grade workers could be lifted this year, federal employee advocates say.

Federal labor unions and some lawmakers have tried for years to remove the cap, which prevents annual pay raises for blue-collar workers from exceeding those for white-collar, or General Schedule (GS), employees. The cap has been in effect since 1979.

The cap has created a growing disparity between public and private sector pay, with one city, Richmond, Va., showing a 32 percent pay gap between public and private sector blue-collar workers, according to information from the Office of Personnel Management.

Baltimore's approximately 4,600 wage-grade workers are earning, on average, 5 percent less than their private-sector counterparts. The maximum pay difference among the job categories evaluated was 8 percent.

In the Hagerstown area, some 2,900 wage-grade employees earn 6 percent less than private sector blue-collar workers, with a 17 percent differential in one job category. The average wage difference in Washington is 10.21 percent, with a maximum gap of 16 percent. More than 15,000 wage-grade workers are employed in the District of Columbia.

In the last congressional session, Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., introduced a bill to eliminate the pay cap, but no action was taken on it. Part of the problem was that Mr. Pell is not a member of the Government Affairs Committee, which handles such measures, so he was not able to shepherd it through to passage.

This year, however, the bill was co-sponsored by Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who chairs the subcommittee that appropriates money for federal pay. Last year, Ms. Mikulski inserted a provision in the bill asking for a study on phasing out the wage cap, and this year federal workers are hoping she can use her clout to eliminate it.

In the House, a companion bill has been introduced for the second time by Rep. George Hockbrueckner, D-N.Y. The measure attracted 82 co-sponsors last year and was passed by the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee. This year, the bill is co-sponsored by more than a dozen lawmakers, but no hearing has been scheduled.

David Dingee, a congressional liaison for the National Federation of Federal Employees, says his union is "more optimistic this year simply because of the change in administrations."

Although President Clinton has called for cuts in federal salaries and benefits, Mr. Dingee says the president probably would not veto the Pell-Mikulski bill if it is passed by Congress.

But the bill's $750 million price tag -- the cost of eliminating the cap and adjusting federal wages to equal private pay -- could well be enough to sink it, Mr. Dingee admits.

"If they take the cap off, it's going to cost money. And that's all we hear about now: money," he says.

JOBS FOR THE 'RIFFED' -- Defense Department employees who lose their jobs due to reductions in force (RIF) can now apply for positions at other agencies that had previously been off limits to them. While this is good news for them, it means potentially more competition for other applicants for government jobs.

The Office of Personnel Management now requires agencies to zTC consider applications from qualified "riffed" workers for jobs that previously had been off limits. The jobs include positions that had been slated to be filled with employees already working in an agency and those being held for "non-competitive" applicants -- veterans of the armed services from previous periods.

The provision applies only to DOD employees who are laid off or receive notice of a layoff between Oct. 23, 1991, and Sept. 30, 1997.

OPM is accepting comments on the interim regulations, which ** went into effect earlier this month, until June 7.

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