FAA, union haggle over performance pay

Employee organization argues formula hurts lower-level workers, with raises contingent on factors beyond their control.

A complicated formula used by the Federal Aviation Administration to calculate increases in pay ranges is detrimental to lower-level employees, a union leader charged Thursday.

Jim Lenz, president of an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local that represents FAA employees, referenced a letter the union sent to FAA Labor Relations Director Melvin Harris in January questioning why salaries in all of the paybands under the agency's Core Compensation system did not increase by the amount promised in a Jan. 3 e-mail to all FAA employees.

The e-mail, sent by FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, indicated that based on the latest market survey, the FAA would raise salaries in the paybands by 1.7 percent.

The union in January demanded that FAA provide details on how payband increases have been calculated since 1996. "After our review of your calculations, the union reserves the right to demand the negotiation of retroactive pay with appropriate interest for impacted employees," the letter said.

But according to a March 13 response from Ferrold Thomas, a labor relations manager with FAA, Blakey's e-mail did not indicate that the maximum thresholds of all paybands under the system would grow. And though it was not specifically "spelled out" in the e-mail, there were three factors that contributed to the structure and administration of raising the paybands, Thomas noted.

The new pay ranges were based on the initial calculation of percentage increase from the midpoint of the bands, Thomas wrote. Therefore, the midpoint salary for Band B in 2006, for example, would rise from $22,700 to $23,100, representing about a 1.7 percent increase, Thomas said.

"It is from the midpoint that the minimum of the band is calculated using the band's applicable spread, and it is from the minimum of the band that the maximum of the band is calculated using the band's applicable spread," Thomas' letter stated.

Lenz characterized that formula as "convoluted" and said it adversely affected employees in the lowest paybands. Using the formula, the FAA calculated the minimum level of Band B in 2006 as $18,900, and the maximum of Band B as $27,400, basing those calculations from the initial $23,100 midpoint.

Additionally, an online notice posted to the FocusFAA bulletin board Wednesday indicated that the agency must meet several of its performance targets this year, including improving the scores on its Employee Attitude Survey and shortening the processing time for employee grievances, in order for employees to earn full increases.

"Keep in mind, we have to finish the year with at least 27 of the performance targets green to earn the full Organization Success Increase, and at this point it's anything but a sure bet," the notice said.

But according to an FAA employee, who spoke under condition of anonymity, while OSI is the foundation for employees' annual pay increases, failure to meet the goals actually indicates an issue specifically with managers' performance.

"Should we then assume that we at the working levels have to 'adjust' our [attitude survey] ratings if we are to have any hope of seeing a pay adjustment?" the employee asked.

The FAA was rated 204 out of 222 subcomponent agencies on employee satisfaction and engagement in the latest rankings of the best places to work in government issued by the Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation.

The employee who asked to remain anonymous and Lenz said morale at the agency continues to be "exceptionally low," adding that a pay-for-performance system should not allow employees to be evaluated based on issues they cannot control, such as the employee attitude survey or management's processing of grievances.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the organization-based increase does depend on meeting overall goals, but noted that a better performance on the employee survey is only one of them. She said both managers and employees are responsible for ensuring that safety, timeliness and performance targets are met.

"Some of the metrics are influenced by the management team and not necessarily the employees, and others are influenced by everybody," Brown said. "You have these overarching goals, and they cascade down to individual performance goals."

Brown added that even if the agency does not meet the required number of performance goals for the year, employees may still be eligible for the OSI, just not at the full level.

On Wednesday, AFSCME sent a letter to the FAA labor relations department, notifying the office that the union is ready to begin negotiating a formal contract. Lenz said the union has gone six years without such an agreement.

"We are prepared to sit down at the table," Lenz said. "We could have management and unions working together to truly have a positive pay for performance system."

Lenz also indicated that the union is optimistic about the future of contract negotiations and employee morale at FAA.

"I believe …the FAA administrator wants to do the right thing," Lenz said. "I think if we work on the basis of doing the right thing -- and the right thing goes along with what's right for employees, management, the government and taxpayers -- we could move the FAA to be a model of how the government should be."