Obama's Track Record on Federal Pay and Benefits

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

President Obama’s legacy, like that of all presidents, rests somewhat in the eye of the beholder. For many, the 44th commander-in-chief forever will be linked to his eponymous health care reform law and his epic tussles with Congress. But for most federal employees, the real Obama legacy isn’t about policies, or even management: It’s his track record on federal pay and benefits. And there are some pretty strong views on that, whether you’re talking to a member of the Senior Executive Service, or a GS-10.

“We have not been happy with pay; I’ve always been very open and honest [about that],” said J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, in a December briefing with reporters. Federal employees will never forget the three-year pay freeze from 2011 through 2013 under Obama -- which Congress also was responsible for. Obama actually tried to end the freeze in 2012 through an executive order, which lawmakers overturned through legislation and the president signed.

“I had a chance to talk with both of them, and I reminded President Obama that President Bush did give better pay raises than he did, as they were both trying to tell me how they’d both been really good for federal employees,” Cox recalled of an event he attended about two years ago, where he found himself standing between the two men. “So, I pointed that out.”

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Then in 2013, the White House canceled the annual Presidential Rank Awards, which honors the federal government’s top career officials with bonuses between 20 percent and 35 percent of their salaries. It was the first time a president had canceled the awards since the program was created in the late 1970s. The White House cited budget cuts and furloughs caused by congressionally-mandated sequestration, and the subsequent need to belt-tighten across government as the reason for scrapping the awards.

The awards were reinstated in 2014. “At such a challenging time, we need the kind of executives exemplified by the Presidential Rank Awards, and we cannot afford yet another action which chips away at the few remaining attractors for service in the career executive corps,” said then-president of the Senior Executives Association Carol Bonosaro.

Obama, however, has sought to make the federal government more of a model employer where he had more flexibility than in compensation. Cox praised Obama for standing strong against discrimination in the federal workplace, and for being a consistent supporter of collective bargaining rights. And it was during the Obama administration that same-sex spouses of federal employees were granted the same health insurance and retirement benefits as heterosexual spouses. That was a result of a 2013 Supreme Court decision, but still, the administration moved quickly to implement the changes in regulation.

“Those are very, very positive things that we’ve seen in this administration,” Cox said.

So, as the Obama-era draws to a close, here’s a non-comprehensive look at the president’s track record on federal pay and benefits.

  • Pay: Obama’s last pay raise for federal civilian employees in 2017 was also his most generous. After Congress decided to give service members a 2.1 percent pay bump (Obama had recommended 1.6 percent for troops and civilians in 2017), the president issued a surprise alternative 2.1 percent pay raise for civilian feds in December. Compared to the George W. Bush administration, the annual cost-of-living increases for feds under Obama (which began in 2010 since the 3.9 percent boost in 2009 became official while Bush was still in office) have been pretty small, ranging from a low of zero during the three-year pay freeze to 2.1 percent in 2017. Obama, however, had to deal with an economic recession and sequestration during his tenure, in addition to the 2010 election of several Tea Party lawmakers intent on reining in government spending and often targeting the federal workforce in their deficit-cutting efforts. Still, federal employees and their advocates over the last eight years have been vocal about the lack of robust pay raises. Locality pay, which is a portion of the overall federal raise, was frozen for much of Obama’s time in office, from 2010 to 2015. Federal workers have been eligible for within-grade and quality-step increases and other financial awards over the last eight years, but the tight fiscal environment has made those harder to come by.
     
  • Bonuses: In addition to canceling the Presidential Rank Awards for senior executives in 2013, the Obama White House also cracked down some on bonuses. The Office of Management and Budget capped performance awards for senior executives and other agency employees at lower levels for six years, raising them again in fiscal 2017. The administration didn’t cap recruitment, retention and relocation bonuses, but directed agencies to keep them at 2010 levels. Increased congressional scrutiny, particularly of senior executive bonuses, exerted pressure on some agencies, like the Veterans Affairs Department, to reduce the amount of bonuses top leaders received over the past few years. But according to the latest data from the Office of Personnel Management, slightly more senior executives across the federal government received bonuses in fiscal 2015 than in fiscal 2014, and on average individual awards increased by about $200 over that time. While the number of career senior executives receiving bonuses and the amount of those bonuses on average increased between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015, the growth rate was smaller than it was between fiscal years 2013 and 2014. It’s hard to make an argument that federal bonuses suffered terribly under the Obama administration, especially since it’s really congressional Republicans who have targeted federal employee compensation since 2010. Most of the actions that the administration took were related to congressional action (e.g., sequestration) or lawmakers’ outrage over a particular agency scandal (e.g., the 2014 patient wait-times controversy at VA).
     
  • Family Leave: Obama repeatedly pushed for paid parental leave for federal employees during his second term through executive actions and support for legislation, as part of a larger agenda to strengthen the middle class by giving families more work-life flexibility. In 2015, he directed agencies to advance federal employees up to six weeks of paid sick leave to care for a new child or ill family member, and also supported legislation that would provide six weeks of paid administrative leave to feds. Between that memo and the proposed legislation, Obama advocated for 12 weeks total of paid leave for federal workers from two different leave banks – sick and administrative. Right now, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to most government and private sector workers for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for seriously ill family members. Federal employees who give birth or adopt can tap their accrued sick and annual leave to avoid three months without a paycheck, but many bristle at having to use hard-earned leave when paid parental leave is becoming more prevalent in the private sector. So far, though, nothing Obama did in this area is permanent because the next administration can reverse his executive actions, and Congress has yet to pass legislation creating paid parental leave for federal employees. President-elect Trump in September unveiled a child-care policy proposal that included ensuring six weeks of paid maternity leave to women who don’t currently receive it from their employer. But it’s not clear that proposal would include federal employees.
     
  • Retirement Benefits: Like pay, many federal employees were not happy with Obama’s approach toward federal retirement benefits. In a 2011 deficit reduction proposal and his fiscal 2014 budget recommendation, Obama supported increasing the amount most federal workers contributed to their pensions as a way to reduce the deficit. The fiscal 2014 budget proposal came after Congress approved a pension hike for new federal workers in 2012, so some federal advocates viewed the administration’s recommendation as adding insult to injury. Congressional leaders and the White House, however, rolled out a proposed budget deal in 2015 for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 that didn’t contain any provisions targeting the pay or benefits of the federal workforce. Since then, there haven’t been any major efforts to further reduce federal civilian employees’ retirement benefits, but that could change going forward now that one party controls Washington. On the plus side, the Obama administration in 2014 finally implemented phased retirement in federal agencies two years after Congress passed the law, allowing eligible employees to partially retire while remaining on the job part-time to mentor other workers. Designed to help federal agencies gain the flexibility to better manage their workforce needs, most agencies haven’t really embraced it, either because it’s too complicated to implement, or there isn’t enough interest from employees.
     
  • Health Insurance: In 2016, the Office of Personnel Management launched a new option to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program – the self-plus-one option, in addition to self-only, and self and family. The change, mandated by Congress in the 2013 budget deal, gave feds with one eligible family member, such as a spouse or a dependent up to age 26, a new FEHBP enrollment choice. Many FEHBP enrollees had long complained about the lack of a self-plus-one option, but the reaction to the change has been mixed, because some enrollees have discovered that self-plus-one isn’t necessarily the cheaper option. The administration also pushed FEHBP carriers to steer beneficiaries toward healthier lifestyles to cut long-term health care costs. Health plans participating in FEHBP in 2011 were required to eliminate cost sharing for preventive care, such as immunizations, tobacco cessation and health screenings. For 2012, OPM encouraged insurance providers to include additional benefits, such as concrete incentives for federal workers to participate in wellness initiatives and prevention programs to reduce childhood and adult obesity. FEHBP also served as one of the models for Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act.
     
  • Sick Leave and Better Pay for Contractors: In several executive orders during his second term, Obama sought to strengthen pay, benefits and other rights for federal contractor employees. He called on federal contractors to provide their employees with paid sick leave in a 2015 executive order, and a separate 2014 executive order prohibited contractors from retaliating against workers for openly discussing compensation as well as provided guidance to agencies on doing business with contractors that violated labor laws. Several of the actions have generated controversy, and so far, a lawsuit. The president in 2014 also amended a Lyndon Johnson executive order, by prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees.
     
  • Benefits for Same-Sex Spouses of Federal Employees: The White House has consistently pushed to provide more federal benefits to same-sex domestic partners and spouses, before and after the 2013 Supreme Court decision. United States v. Windsor meant that same-sex spouses (but not domestic partners) of federal employees became eligible for all the same benefits available to their heterosexual counterparts, including health insurance under FEHBP, retirement benefits, etc. But back in 2010 and 2011, Obama took executive action within the law before the 2013 decision to expand benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers, supporting those extensions as early as 2009. In 2013, OPM decided through an interpretation of the law to allow federal employees in same-sex domestic partnerships to enroll their children in FEHBP (their partners remain ineligible).

    Eric Katz contributed to this story.

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