Pay & Benefits Watch

Erich Wagner | September 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

A Pay Freeze in Doubt, and Back Pay for Fired VA Employees

By ivandan / Shutterstock.com

As Congress last week prepared to negotiate whether to provide federal civilian employees with a 1.9 percent pay increase next year, President Trump introduced additional uncertainty to the conversation.

Just one day after following up on his fiscal 2019 budget plan with a formal proposal to freeze federal workers’ pay, the president suggested he would “study” the issue.

“I’m going to be studying, you know, the federal workers in Washington that you’ve been reading so much about,” Trump said at a ceremony marking the signing of an executive order on retirement savings. “People don’t want to give them any increase. They haven’t had one in a long time. I said, 'I’m going to study that over the weekend.' It’s a good time to study it—Labor Day. Let’s see how they do next week. But a lot of people were against it.”

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The “lot of people” who have been against a pay raise are primarily employees of the White House and the Office of Management and Budget. And Trump last Saturday retweeted Corey Stewart, the conservative Republican running against Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., for a Senate seat, criticizing Trump’s pay freeze plan.

The potential change in the executive branch’s position on whether to increase compensation for civilian feds adds an additional wrinkle to ongoing congressional spending negotiations.

While the Senate has approved a minibus spending package for several agencies that includes a 1.9 percent pay increase next year, the House did not include language on compensation in its version of the bill, effectively endorsing the Trump administration’s pay freeze proposal. The raise is one of several key differences that a conference committee will iron out later this month.

As GovExec’s Katherine McIntire Peters wrote last week, Trump’s issuance of an alternative pay plan was not unusual. In fact, it has become an annual ritual since the Clinton administration, as presidents have taken issue with the methodology behind automatic pay raises as calculated under provisions of the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act.

Even if Congress does not agree to include a pay raise for civilian federal workers through the appropriations process, Trump could unilaterally reverse course on the pay freeze plan when he issues, through the President’s Pay Agent, a final decision on 2019 federal compensation in December.

Meanwhile, a number of former Veterans Affairs Department employees could soon be back at work, following a ruling from a third-party arbitrator. At issue is the firing of employees under the 2017 VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act without providing a 90-day performance improvement plan, which an arbitrator found violated an existing collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees.

The arbitrator found that the accountability law does not address the issue of performance improvement plans, and department memos that do change performance improvement plan policies cannot supersede existing union contracts.

If accepted, that means employees fired without being provided a performance improvement plan would be able to come back to their posts, and receive back pay. The department has 30 days to challenge the ruling before the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

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