Trump wavers over civil service pay freeze plan

By on 04/09/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
President Trump rethinks civil service pay free plan over Labor Day (Image courtesy: Gage Skidmore/Flickr).

US president Donald Trump has signalled he may back down on proposals – announced just last week – to freeze pay for civilian federal employees.

In a letter to Congressional leaders published last Thursday, Trump initially said he would use his powers to cancel a scheduled across-the-board rise of 2.1% for federal civil servants.

He added that he would also cancel a proposal for an average 25.70% ‘locality pay’ rate, designed to top up incomes in expensive areas of the country in order to narrow the gap between public and private salaries.

Second thoughts

However, just a day later, following pushback from unions, Democrats and some Republican politicians, he said he would spend the following days – over the Labor Day bank holiday, which fell last weekend – looking further at the issue.

In a speech in North Carolina, Trump said: “I’m going to be studying, you know, the federal workers in Washington that you’ve been reading so much about. 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. I’m going to take a good hard look over the weekend.”

Freezing the freeze?

In Thursday’s letter, the president proposed using his powers to implement alternative pay adjustments to those proposed by the Federal Salary Council in July. The president said the proposed locality pay increases – due to be introduced from 1 January 2019 – would cost US$25bn, although he did not specify how much the across-the-board rise would come to or clarify whether the existing locality rate would remain in place.

“In light of our nation’s fiscal situation, federal employee pay must be performance-based, and aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining, and rewarding high-performing federal employees and those with critical skill sets,” his letter said. “Across-the-board pay increases and locality pay increases, in particular, have long-term fixed costs, yet fail to address existing pay disparities or target mission critical recruitment and retention goals.”

Following this initial announcement, Republican Virginia congresswoman Barbara Comstock released a statement which said: “We cannot balance the budget on the backs of our federal employees and I will work with my House and Senate colleagues to keep the pay increase in our appropriations measures that we vote on in September.”

Following Trump’s announcement that he would look again at the pay freeze proposal, the president retweeted Virginia Republican Senate candidate and Trump supporter Corey Stewart, who had welcomed the rethink.

The president’s powers

Under the US Code, presidents are allowed to alter scheduled federal employee pay increases in cases of “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare.” In the wake of the financial crisis, former president Barack Obama instituted a three-year federal pay freeze between 2011 and 2013.

Last year, Trump stopped short of a pay freeze, but reduced the original proposal for a 1.9% across-the-board increase and an average 26.16% locality element to 1.4% and 0.5% respectively.

At the time of publication, neither the president nor the White House had set out a new policy following Trump’s Labor Day rethink.

About Colin Marrs

Colin is a journalist and editor with long experience in the government and built environment sectors. He cut his teeth in local newspaper journalism before moving to Inside Housing in 1999. He has worked in a variety of roles for built environment titles including Planning, Regeneration & Renewal and Property Week. After a spell at advertising industry bible Campaign magazine, he became a freelancer in 2010. Since then he has edited, local government finance publication and contributed news and features to Civil Service World, Architects’ Journal, Social Housing, management titles and written white papers for major corporate and public sector clients.


  1. Bob Ten Eyck says:

    I think the president is right to want to limit Federal pay increases in DC. HOWEVER, there are many people in Government who do NOT live in the beltway and as such reacted badly to the previous announcement. It costs a lot to live and work in Alaska Hawaii Guam PR etc. We don’t all work in DC. I understand your reasoning but please realize we are out here too performing valuable things for this country. FAA and weather come to mind. I work for NWS in Alaska.

  2. Alan says:

    The DC Metro area is a very expensive place to live if you want to be close to your job.

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