Trump orders pay freeze for federal workers

Congress still could vote in favor of providing a raise, but it would take effect only if Trump approves it.
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump issued an order Friday, Dec. 28, to freeze federal employee salary rates at current levels in 2019, although a chance remains that employees will still receive a raise.

Trump's order was expected since he has advocated a freeze all year. It, however, was necessary under the complex law governing federal pay to prevent a large raise from taking effect by default, due to Congress not making a decision regarding a raise.

The order comes as some 800,000 federal employees, out of a workforce of 2.1 million, are in unpaid status due to the partial government shutdown that now has lasted a week and is virtually guaranteed to last at least a number of days more. Of those, about 380,000 have been furloughed while the rest are still on the job, although without pay, due to the nature of their work.

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"This is just pouring salt into the wound," National Treasury Employees Union president Tony Reardon said in a statement. "It is shocking that federal employees are taking yet another financial hit. As if missed paychecks and working without pay were not enough, now they have been told that they don't even deserve a modest pay increase."

Trump's order only applies to civilian workers. Military personnel, which are covered under a separate funding measure, will receive a 2.6 percent raise.

The order is the latest in a long series of back and forth developments regarding a raise. After Trump's original proposal for a freeze in an early-year budget plan, the House passed a measure that in effect consented, by making no mention of a raise. But the Senate then passed a counterpart favoring an average 1.9 percent increase, with some variation by locality.

Trump followed with a letter to Congress stating his intention to impose a freeze if legislators did not act by the end of the calendar year. For a time it appeared that the House would agree to the Senate's proposed raise, but the two chambers never produced a bill resolving the issue.

Trump's order is not necessarily the final word, however. Even before the partial shutdown hit, one of the main Senate advocates for paying a raise, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., had raised the prospect of attempting to pass a raise early in the new Congress that convenes Jan. 3, saying that "it should be the first order of business when we return."

Federal employee pay raises are effective with the start of the first full biweekly pay period of a year, which in this case will start Jan. 6, leaving little time for enactment of a raise by then. However, raises have been paid retroactively - most recently in both 2003 and 2004 when final agency funding similarly hadn't been resolved until past the start of the new year. In both cases, a raise had been paid by default in early January but was overridden by a larger one contained in a later full-year appropriations bill.

The Senate initially approved a 1.9 percent raise for 2019 on a strong bipartisan vote although it rejected a bid by Van Hollen and others to include it in a measure to temporarily continue funding for agencies whose regular budgets have not been enacted.

With Democrats set to take control of the House on Jan. 3, the House is considered more likely to back a raise than it had been under Republican control. However, the president would have to sign any measure containing a raise for one to take effect.

Federal employees have received annual raises in the 1- to 2-percent range since a freeze over 2011 to 2013. Office of Personnel Management guidance on the new order says that employees would remain eligible in 2019, as they were in those years, for raises on promotion or on advancing up the steps of a pay grade.

Under the General Schedule, the main pay system for white-collar employees below the executive level, employees move up a step every one, two or three years until hitting the top of a pay grade, where such increases stop. Employees also can be advanced faster than normal as a performance reward. Those "within-grade" raises are worth about 3 percent of salary.

Career executives and other employees at senior levels are paid within a range, with raises based on performance ratings; they still could receive those raises in 2019, according to the OPM guidance.

In addition, the guidance notes that a freeze that has remained in effect since 2013 on salaries for senior political appointees is due to expire on Jan. 5. Unless a law is enacted reinstating that freeze, they would be due for catch-up raises covering the intervening years, it says. That would result in a raise for Cabinet members, for example, of nearly $11,000 to $210,700.

This article was written by Eric Yoder, a reporter for The Washington Post.