Five things every federal employee should know about the Obama budget

President Barack Obama has tucked a 1.3 percent pay raise for General Schedule employees and service members into his $4 trillion blueprint for fiscal 2016. At the same time, federal employees would not have to pay more towards their retirement, under the plan.

Bundled into a budget that also repeals the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, the measures mark a change from a more draconian recent past, which included three years of frozen pay followed by two years of 1-percent pay raises.

“Taking into account both the recent pay freezes and the changes in retirement contributions, earnings for new federal employees since these changes have fallen more than 10 percentage points relative to the private sector between 2009 and 2015,” the budget proposal says.

The administration contends that the proposed pay bump would help the government attract job candidates and retain top employees at a time when the federal workforce faces increased demands.

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“It builds upon the modest pay raises the President has proposed in the past, in reversing the pay freezes and the hiring freezes of a number of years, and the furloughs that many agencies went through,” said Beth Cobert, deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, during a media briefing. “We think it gives agencies flexibilities within their top lines to make other investments in employee training and development, which we know workers care about, as well as continuing to fully fund employee health and retirement benefits.”

Pay raises for federal vs. private workforce, 1978-2016

Source: Fiscal Year 2016 Budget of the United States Government

But, federal employees’ groups are asking if that’s it.

“The President’s budget is a step in the right direction compared to previous budget cycles but still comes up short on issues impacting federal employees,” said William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

“Let’s be real — a 1.3 percent pay raise will be eaten up by higher costs for groceries, health care and other essentials. Like other middle-class workers, federal employees need a meaningful pay raise to make up for years of stagnant wages, and unfortunately the President’s proposal falls short,” said J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

He said he hopes the proposal encourages some federal employees to stay in government, but doubts it will sway those eyeing retirement because it won’t do a lot to boost their overall benefits.

Better would be a 3.8 percent raise, he said. That proposal has been floated by congressional Democrats, but so far lacks Republican cosponsors.

“Many Republicans talk about the need for bipartisanship and to recruit the best and brightest,” he noted hopefully.

The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association also questioned whether a 1.3-percent pay raise would be enough to entice job seekers and retain talented workers, as White House budget documents state.

“Over the past five years, federal employees’ wages increased 2 percent, while private-sector wages rose 8.3 percent and the cost of living increased 11 percent. This sends a powerful message to job seekers questioning whether a career in the public sector would provide the necessary income to support a family, buy a house and save for the future,” said NARFE President Richard Thissen.

At the same time, NARFE lauded the omissions of an increase in employees’ retirement contributions and a plan to link cost-of-living adjustments to the Chained CPI, something the Obama administration had put forth in past years’ budgets to the consternation of many Democrats.

The Republican-led Congress could still thwart a pay raise for federal employees and myriad other items in the White House proposal. But the budget mentions plenty of other initiatives that either aren’t on lawmakers’ radars or don’t require their approval. Below are some that would affect federal employees:

Changes are coming to the Senior Executive Service

With more than half of the government’s career senior executives eligible to retire, the White House will launch or expand initiatives to recruit, hire and develop the next generation of SES members.

Agencies have selected employees to serve on an advisory group that will make recommendations in all of those areas to the White House, the budget says. The White House also will launch a new leadership development program, in which promising SES candidates will leave their agencies or programs to work elsewhere in the government on a short-term basis. The first cohort begins this year. President Obama announced both initiatives in an address to senior executives in December.

In addition, some agencies are piloting alternatives to the current SES hiring process, which now takes up to a year, the budget says.

While it may be hard for Congress to find fault in any of these proposals, a plan to link SES performance plans to employee engagement (below) may raise more eyebrows.

White House puts pressure on agencies to meet employee engagement goals

The White House has set a goal of raising employee engagement, as measured by the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, to 67 percent by next year. But it got a big setback this year, when the government average fell to 63 percent. That’s worse than in the private sector, the budget noted.

Now the White House is putting pressure on senior leaders to heed those numbers. Calling the survey a “diagnostic tool” to identify problem areas, the White House expects agencies to incorporate employees’ feedback into senior executives’ performance plans. Agency leaders will review progress at least four times a year.

“Senior leaders will be held accountable for ensuring that employee engagement is a priority and becomes an integral part of the performance-management system,” the budget said. The plan is based on a memo from the White House and Office of Personnel Management, which Federal News Radio uncovered last year.

Virtual teams drawn from multiple agencies take on big problems

The White House wants to expand an initiative that could help the government address crises that cross agency borders, from a surge in illegal immigration to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Some agency managers are testing GovConnect, the platform that lets them build virtual teams by recruiting federal employees with necessary skills from throughout the government. Pilot programs will continue this year, with a wider roll-out expected in 2016.

Budget endorses more flexibilities for federal employees

The budget repeats President Obama’s call for paid parental leave, endorsing legislation that would give federal employees up to six weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child. It also encourages agencies to help employees find child care in emergencies. Some, but not all, agencies do that now through their employee assistance programs.

It also lauds efforts to let federal employees retire gradually, saying the option will let senior employees mentor and train newer colleagues. To date, the Office of Personnel Management has received no applications from federal employees, a sign that agencies have been slow to develop policies.

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