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Senior Foreign Service members decry executive pay changes

Changes in the compensation structure for Senior Executive Service employees may lead to permanent pay disparities for some Senior Foreign Service members. The current SES pay cap is $134,000, plus locality-based pay. Under the fiscal 2004 Defense Authorization Act, the pay cap for SES members would increase to $154,700, relieving compression at the top pay rate that had resulted in about 70 percent of all SES members receiving the same pay. The new pay system eliminates the six current SES pay levels and replaces them with one pay range with a floor of about $102,000.

But the reforms also eliminate locality pay, and put more of each SES member's annual pay raise at risk. Instead of automatic locality pay increases, annual pay raises will be based solely on performance evaluations under the new system.

By law, pay for members of the Senior Foreign Service, the top echelon of the government's diplomatic corps, is linked to that of the SES.

In a Dec. 17 letter to Government Executive, John W. Limbert, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the reforms will adversely affect Senior Foreign Service officers overseas. AFSA represents Foreign Service members in the State, Agriculture and Commerce departments as well as at the Agency for International Development.

The new law freezes senior executives' pay at current levels on Jan. 11, 2004. Limbert said when that occurs, it will cause permanent pay disparities between Senior Foreign Service members currently based in Washington and those overseas. Members of the Foreign Service overseas do not receive locality pay, and instead receive "base pay," which is currently 13 percent less than what they would receive if they were stationed in Washington.

"Professionals overseas at the time of the transition will find their salaries frozen at levels up to $16,000 less than their Washington-based colleagues," Limbert wrote. "Overseas, the unfortunate message to the Foreign Service of the United States from the recent SES pay changes is inescapable: the administration and the Congress value neither our service nor our sacrifice."

In the past, the disparity between Washington-based foreign service officers and those abroad has existed, but officers overseas had the opportunity to make up the difference by returning to Washington. With the elimination of locality pay, that opportunity will be lost.

Officials at the Office of Personnel Management did not respond to several requests to provide comment for this story.