US lawmakers defend federal workers’ rights, but pay hike remains 1%

By on 15/07/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The FSGG bill seeks to protect workers’ collective bargaining rights, which have been diminished since president Trump signed three executive orders designed to weaken unions’ clout in 2018. (Photo by Michael Vadon via flickr).

A House of Representatives panel moved to protect US federal employees from the Trump administration’s efforts to cut benefits and curb collective bargaining rights last week, but has not improved on the 1% pay rise proposed for 2021.

The Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) subcommittee voted to recommend the appropriations bill legislation – which represents its portion of the fiscal 2021 spending package – be considered by the House Appropriations Committee without amendments. The bill seeks to block several controversial White House initiatives, including the proposed merger of the Office of Personnel Management and General Services Administration, along with attempts by the White House to cut the civil service pension scheme.

One of the reforms proposed by the Trump administration would require employees enrolled in the Federal Employees Retirement System to contribute an additional 1% per year to their retirement accounts until both employees and the government contribute 50%. The subcommittee rejected this and other similar proposals in its appropriations bill.

The legislation would also prevent federal agencies from enforcing any union contracts that have not been “mutually and voluntarily agreed to” by all parties. In May 2018, Trump signed three executive orders designed to weaken unions’ clout and make it easier for agencies to fire federal employees. The orders began to be implemented in November last year after unions lost a court case that sought to block them.

No attempt to improve proposed pay rise  

While unions and associations – such as the National Treasury Employees Union and the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association – have applauded the subcommittee’s efforts to protect workers’ rights and benefits, they are disappointed by its decision not to improve on Trump’s proposed 1% increase in basic pay for 2021. The proposed across-the-board pay increase is an improvement on the pay freeze championed by Trump in previous years, but significantly lower than the 1.9% and 3.1% pay increases that were eventually agreed in 2019 and 2020

Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) told Global Government Forum that the protections in the FSGG bill are “critical to maintaining a federal workforce that works for and represents all citizens and residents” of the US.

The Trump administration’s targeting of the federal workforce and the unions that protect them is being driven by private sector leaders “who want to cut pay and benefits for their own workers”, he said.

“The Trump administration and the industry leaders who push unethical ‘reforms’ within government want federal unions out of the way because we call them on their bullshit,” he said. “Government is their only natural enemy because federal employees enforce the law. If they can defund us, if they can politicise government missions, and if they can weaken the laws that regulate them, so much the better they feel. Federal unions are an independent voice from within the ranks of government telling the rest of the world what is going on. They absolutely hate that.”            

He noted that federal unions can’t strike or bargain over pay or benefits, existing primarily to bargain on working conditions and to watch for corruption, violations of workforce laws, and discrimination against career federal employees.

Need to recognise hard work

On the FSGG’s decision not to push for a higher pay rise, Lenkart conceded that the economic nosedive and near record high unemployment rate is a consideration – he puts the US’s position down to “the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic by the Trump White House” – but argued that federal employees should be recognised for their hard work.

“Many of us working on pandemic-related missions have endured a brutal year mentally, emotionally and physically,” he said. “Because federal workers remain on the job, the cost of childcare has skyrocketed with schools out, and a lot of our spouses are out of work. Federal workers and their families are fighting to break even, and often losing since utilities and other costs continue to rise.

“An increase to federal employees, even a small one, equates to a stimulus package because that money will roll right into local communities around the country. If there is one part of the economy that we can protect, even one as small as government workers, knowing that the increase will go directly to others in cities and towns around the country, we would be foolish not to do it.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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