WASHINGTON – Don’t tell Elsie Jones to celebrate the 4.8 percent pay raise she is expected to get in January.
The 48-year-old file clerk with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Baltimore can’t see beyond the 10 percent increase in health care premiums that is coming along with her raise.
“It’s not a good thing for me,” said Jones of the raise for federal workers that was signed by President Clinton last week. “It’s eaten up before it gets to us.”
Even though the raise is the largest since 1981 for federal workers, Jones and others of the 130,889 federal employees in Maryland are grumbling about it. Some see the raise as being eaten away by other expenses while others complain that it still leaves federal workers’ pay well below that of their counterparts in the private sector.
Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, said federal workers would have to get a 16.75 percent raise to close the gap with private-sector salaries.
“We’re not happy with the 4.8 percent. It doesn’t make up for the Clinton administration ignoring federal needs by not fully honoring FEPCA,” said Witiak, referring to the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990, which was supposed to bring government salaries in line with private salaries.
The raise was signed into law Wednesday as part of the Treasury/Postal Service Appropriations bill. While it calls for a 4.8 percent raise for all federal workers, some employees could get more or less depending on where they live. The administration is expected to make final allotments in November.
Maryland’s federal workers had an average income of $57,000 at the end of last year, said AFGE compensation specialist Peter Tchirkow. A 4.8 percent raise here would translate into an average of $2,800, he said.
“This is certainly significant,” said Tchirkow, noting that it is the largest federal pay raise under Clinton. Tchirkow was confident that the raise, combined with regular step increases for federal workers, “will be good for local economies.”
But that boost to local economies comes at a huge cost, say taxpayer groups.
“Taxpayers may be shocked to learn about the raise,” said Peter Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. “Inflation is only expected to be 1.8 percent this year. The pay raise may strike taxpayers as excessive.”
He said any federal raise should reflect the increase in the cost of living. But Sepp said he still expects that federal workers across the board will receive the full 4.8 percent.
“The pay raise is a very popular cause between Democrats and Republicans. It endears them with the federal work source so they don’t appear stingy,” he said.
Congress is hardly being generous in the eyes of Michael Bussacca, a health insurance specialist with Health Care Finance Administration in Baltimore.
“While satisfied with the 5 percent, we wanted a bit more,” said Bussacca, touting his office’s “fantastic” work on Y2K problems and on implementing more than 300 Medicare changes to cope with the Balanced Budget Act for 1997.
Not everyone is down on the raise. For Henry Powell, president of the National Treasury Employees Union at the Internal Revenue Service in Baltimore, the raise is good news.
“We (at IRS) feel great. We’re really happy that we’re going to get the same pay raise as the military,” which will get a 4.8 percent increase, he said.
But he did say he would be disappointed if Baltimore-area workers do not get the full 4.8 percent when locality pay is allotted.
“I’d be in for a big letdown if we didn’t get it,” Powell said. “I’ve informed my employees that the locality rate is not included in the 4.8 percent.”
Howard Friedman, a trademark attorney with the Patent and Trademark Office in Arlington has mixed feelings about the raise, too.
“Obviously I’m heartened that Congress sees it fit to give us a pay raise,” the Potomac resident said. But Friedman also said that, given the nation’s current “economic boom,” the raise could have been higher.
Jones, the VA file clerk, said that while she has to work a second part- time job to make ends meet, she has no plans to leave her federal job over her unhappiness with the raise.
“I stay with the federal government because of my age. I feel that I’m too old to go into the private sector,” where she said she would have to compete with recent college graduates.
“Also, if I moved into the private sector, I’d wouldn’t receive the same retirement benefits,” Jones said. “I stay where I can get the most coverage.”