Federal law enforcement officers shoot for pay parity

An FBI agent in Oregon finds out that he qualifies for food stamps. A San Diego Border Patrol officer commutes for hours every day because there's no affordable housing near his workplace. A federal police officer fresh out of training quits to join a city force that offers better pay and more generous benefits.

Advocates for federal law enforcement officers cite these as examples of a crisis brewing in their ranks. They say that inadequate pay-especially in cities with high costs of living-is forcing many officers to beg for transfers or to quit their jobs."This is the biggest concern of our members," says John Amat, a deputy U.S. marshal and vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. Agents are "afraid of not being able to support their families."

But if federal law enforcement officers are dissatisfied with their salaries, they aren't voting with their feet. In 2003, federal law enforcement quit rates, the numbers at which officers leave their jobs voluntarily before retirement, ranged from about 0.25 percent among federal correctional institution administrators to 6.3 percent for deputy U.S. marshals. Five percent of Border Patrol agents, 2.7 percent of federal prison officers and 0.65 percent of criminal investigators quit in 2003. Those rates were in line with the federal workforce as a whole, which had a quit rate of 2 percent in 2003. By contrast, the quit rate for the whole U.S. workforce was about 20 percent over the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salary figures indicate that few agents need to be concerned about their ability to support their families. For example, an entry-level FBI agent in Portland, Ore., earns about $60,000 per year when locality pay and mandatory overtime pay is calculated. With a stay-at-home spouse and a monthly housing cost of $1,800, the agent would have to have 10 children in order to qualify for food stamps, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services.

In some high-cost cities, "It's tough for a brand-new agent who's making $50,000 a year," says William Pickle, a former deputy assistant director for human resources and training with the Secret Service, who is now the Senate's sergeant at arms. "It's tough for a year or two. But it's no different than any other entry-level type position" in the private sector. Within a few years, the journeyman Secret Service agent will make about $100,000 a year, he says, because the service pays its officers law enforcement availability pay equivalent to 25 percent of their salaries for being on call, in addition to scheduled overtime at a rate one-and-a-half times their regular hourly rates during the long hours that officers work on presidential protection details.

In reality, as many civil servants know well, under the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, law enforcement officers ranked GS-3 to GS-10 earn higher basic pay than typical white-collar federal employees. Law officers also often enjoy more generous overtime, and unlike other civil servants who cannot retire before age 60 with 20 years of experience, law enforcement officers with 20 years on the job can retire at 50. Congress first granted early retirement to FBI employees in 1947 to help the bureau maintain a young workforce, and as a retention incentive. A year later, early retirement was extended to other federal law enforcement personnel whose primary duties are the investigation, apprehension or detention of persons suspected or convicted of crimes.

But not every federal employee who carries out duties typically associated with law enforcement has ended up with law enforcement pay and benefits. It's no wonder that many of these employees, such as Homeland Security border inspectors and Veterans Affairs Department police officers, are lobbying Congress to include them in the law enforcement retirement system as well.

But if law enforcement officers are generally paid well, their employers are in some cases facing legitimate management problems because of the illogical variations in the compensation system. The problem for federal managers is the inconsistency of pay and benefits across agencies. So while it's going too far to say that many federal officers are struggling to put food on the table, managers of law enforcement agency offices in high-cost cities are frustrated that they cannot counter salary offers made from more generous state and local police forces.

Similarly, agencies that offer lower salaries, or that don't have authority to offer their employees early retirement, complain that they are losing workers to their more privileged federal rivals. The issue, they say, is not whether the pay is adequate to raise a family, but whether it is competitive in the marketplace.

"I feel strongly that Border Patrol agents are paid a good wage for the work they do," says Thomas Walters, chief patrol agent at the Border Patrol Academy in Glynco, Ga. An entry-level Border Patrol agent earns at least $41,000 a year on the Southwest border; a journeyman earns at least $61,000. "They are pretty highly paid, but you have to look at the competitive part," adds Walters. The pay is good enough in most border areas, he says, but not in all.

Walters says he loses agents to big-city police departments and state police forces that offer higher salaries. Including overtime, San Diego pays its entry-level officers about $47,000 a year, compared with the $43,100 that the Border Patrol pays its lowest-level agents there. California Highway Patrol officers average more than $55,000 to start when average overtime is included. A New York City officer fresh out of the city's police academy makes about $60,000 with overtime.

Cathie Kasch, assistant administrator for human resources at the Drug Enforcement Administration, says she has had little trouble recruiting agents to sign up with DEA since she joined the agency in 2002. This year, DEA hired 430 new agents at grades 7 and 9, which in Washington translates to salaries of $48,427 and $54,011 a year. Upon reaching the journeyman level, GS-13, agents earn more than $90,000 when mandatory law enforcement availability pay is added.

Still, Kasch points out that unlike most other federal workers, DEA agents must sign mobility agreements, saying they'll move as a condition of employment. To reach grade 14, agents must serve in both field and headquarters assignments. Kasch has found that agents are sometimes reluctant to accept a transfer to San Francisco or New York City from a lower cost-of-living area.

Patchwork Quilt

When unhappy employees leave, the costs of turnover can be immense. The Border Patrol sinks 20 weeks of training into each new agent at a cost of about $20,000. In 2001, then-Immigration and Naturalization Service chief James Ziglar told a House committee that the Border Patrol had to attract 75,000 applicants in order to fill 2,000 jobs because of the rigorous vetting that new hires must undergo and physical fitness standards that they must meet. Though overall turnover among border agents is manageable, turnover during the first year is high.

Last year, the Office of Personnel Management estimated that while the overall Border Patrol quit rate was 5.8 percent, the figure was dramatically higher for first-year agents. Rookies hired at grade 5 quit at a rate of 45 percent. About 10 percent of employees with more experience and education, hired at grade 7, quit during their first year. At the same time, only 1 percent of higher-level agents quit.

During that first year, other federal agencies often lure away Walters' trainees. For example, during the Transportation Security Administration's campaign to hire thousands of air marshals two years ago, as many as 300 Border Patrol agents quit each month. That's because Congress had authorized TSA to use a pay-banding system under which the agency could pay experienced officers as much as $80,800 per year. In exchange for their on-call status, marshals also receive 25 percent availability pay. Because the Border Patrol lacked the flexibility to offer higher salaries, it couldn't compete.

Though that problem has largely subsided since the marshals completed their buildup, the overarching problem has not been corrected, nor is there an easy fix. Because there is no single federal law enforcement pay system, agencies compete with one another for officers. Entry-level salaries vary from agency to agency, as do journeyman levels. Some agencies offer availability pay and early retirement, others don't.

The patchwork quilt of systems has been created over decades, with little attention given to how different pay rates and benefits at one agency would affect others. Gradually, a hierarchy has developed: Agencies that offer lower pay and benefits are seen as stepping stones to those providing more lucrative compensation. Some of the discrepancies are logical since certain jobs require higher levels of education, more experience, or both. The FBI, for example, starts its special agents at the grade 10 level, much higher than the Border Patrol or the U.S. Marshals Service. But the FBI also requires that all its employees have a college degree, and heavily favors applicants who have advanced degrees in either law or accounting, skills that could draw high private-sector salaries.

But some of the discrepancies make little sense. For example, a 2003 General Accounting Office report (GAO-03-658) found that of 13 federal police forces operating at agencies in the Washington area, entry-level salaries ranged from $28,801 at the National Institutes of Health and the Federal Protective Service to $40,808 at the Library of Congress, Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol.

Even though the jobs are similar, the different pay rates have caused repercussions in retention rates. The GAO study found that from 1997 through 2002, NIH turnover averaged 34 percent a year. At the Supreme Court, by contrast, the figure was 8 percent. Of the 13 forces, only those at the Supreme Court, the Capitol, Secret Service, FBI and Park Police qualify for early retirement.

Equally bizarre in the minds of some is the fact that border inspectors at the Homeland Security Department and revenue collection agents at the Internal Revenue Service enforce criminal laws, but do not receive law enforcement pay or benefits while chaplains and cooks at the Bureau of Prisons do.

"My feeling is that the whole system is broke and needs to be fixed," says John Baffa, deputy assistant secretary for security and law enforcement at the VA. All too often, he argues, young VA officers view their job as a brief stop on the way to something better in another federal agency, or in state or local law enforcement. "We are cannibalizing each other," Baffa says.

Untangling the Mess

Baffa hopes that Congress and the Office of Personnel Management will step in and untangle the mess. He has some reason for hope. Last year, Congress passed the Federal Law Enforcement Pay and Benefits Parity Act. Sponsored by Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., it required the Office of Personnel Management to produce a study detailing the myriad different classification, pay and benefits systems among federal law enforcement agencies, and make recommendations for eliminating disparities.

The study, which came out July 16, says that law enforcement officers "today are covered by a rigid retirement structure rooted in the 1940s, an archaic classification and basic pay system that is market and performance insensitive, and a complex and confusing system of premium payments" for overtime, weekend and night work. The report argues that Congress should authorize governmentwide personnel flexibilities for law enforcement officers like those already granted to the Defense and Homeland Security departments. Agencies should have the authority to offer a wider range of pay to entry-level officers, and to vary pay based on performance, the report says.

While numerous bills already introduced in Congress would raise federal law enforcement pay and broaden the definition of law enforcement officer to include some of those currently excluded, Voinovich, as chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, has stood in the way of any bill that doesn't offer a comprehensive solution. He says he prefers to wait and see how personnel reforms at the Homeland Security Department, which employs more than 40,000 of the government's 130,000 law enforcement employees, work out. Any solution, though, is bound to either cost a lot of money or throw agencies into even fiercer competition with one another.

In 1999, OPM estimated that broadening the definition of law enforcement officer to include all the employees who dispute their nonlaw-enforcement status, such as federal police officers, border inspectors and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms inspectors, would cost the federal retirement system $1.5 billion initially, plus the cost of allowing all future employees in those positions to retire early.

The Homeland Security Department, on the other hand, now has greater flexibility in setting and increasing pay based on competition in the marketplace and the perceived quality of individuals. DEA's Kasch worries that if DHS opts for a pay-banding system, managers would get wide latitude to vary salaries, throwing into turmoil the existing pay hierarchy.

If DHS starts paying its immigration and customs investigators higher wages, Kasch says she would want similar authority to keep her best agents. But, if the problem for federal managers is competition from one another, or from state and local police forces, it's hard to see how giving human resources offices more power to set pay rates will boost retention. The result, more likely, is that a new hierarchy will emerge, with agencies with higher personnel budgets at the top and those without at the bottom.

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