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Paying the Price: Feds Increasingly Unhappy With Salaries

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Despite an unprecedented three-year pay freeze, a majority of federal employees are still at least somewhat satisfied with their pay. That percentage of employees who feel that way, however, is plummeting.

In 2010 -- the last year feds received an across-the-board raise -- 66 percent of federal workers provided a positive response when asked, “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your pay?” according to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. In the 2013 report, which the Office of Personnel Management released last week, just 54 percent of respondents said the same.

While the overall results remain positive, just 14 percent of respondents said they were “very satisfied” with their pay. Not surprisingly, the results also varied by how much the employees were getting paid. Among GS 1-6 employees -- who earn annual base salaries of around $18,000 to $40,000 -- just 35 percent expressed satisfaction with pay. Compare that to GS 13-15 workers -- who earn between $72,000 and $130,000 before locality adjustments -- 65 percent of whom were happy with their pay. While the high-end earners are still more satisfied, they have dropped off 14 percentage points since 2010, while lower-end earners’ satisfaction has declined by just 8 percentage points.   

Put another way, even those who are still happy are becoming unhappy at a faster rate.

An employee’s age was not a significant variable in pay satisfaction, with all age ranges falling between 52 percent and 55 percent satisfied.

Pay satisfaction varied significantly by agency, ranging from 42 percent at the National Credit Union Association to 66 percent at NASA. A half dozen agencies -- including the Veterans Affairs and Treasury departments, two of federal government’s largest -- had scores below 50 percent.

One statistic remained consistent across all of government: every single agency saw a drop-off in pay satisfaction since 2011, most of them significant declines of more than 5 percentage points.

Another pay related issue saw the most negative response of any question asked on the survey, with 55 percent of respondents saying they do not believe raises depend on job performance. While just 21 percent of the lowest grade employees saw a raise-performance connection, 35 percent of those in the Senior Executive Service said the same.

So what does all of this mean? Are employees just grumpier, or could it carry over into negatively affecting agencies’ missions?

OPM says it’s a little bit of both.

“Factors such as an unprecedented 3-year pay freeze…are clearly taking a toll on the federal workforce,” OPM Director Katherine Archuleta wrote in the report. “The survey results serve as an important warning about the long-term consequences of the sequestration and budget uncertainty. Without a more predictable and responsible budget situation, we risk losing our most talented employees, as well as hurting our ability to recruit top talent for the future.”

For now however, employees are happy to do their jobs, and 63 percent of employees still said they would recommend their organization as a good place to work (although that number was 70 percent in 2010).

Despite the challenges federal workers face, Archuleta said, “we strongly believe that our agencies are good places to work and that our employees will continue to be dedicated to doing their work, serving the public in the best and most effective way.”

Will that continue? Well, that’s probably up to Congress

Eric Katz joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 after graduating from The George Washington University, where he studied journalism and political science. He has written for his college newspaper and an online political news website and worked in a public affairs office for the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. Most recently, he worked for Financial Times, where he reported on national politics.

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