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Groups Push for End to Justice Dept. Pay Gap, and More

A weekly roundup of pay and benefits news.

Two federal employee groups in recent weeks have urged the Biden administration to reduce pay disparities that have manifested at the Justice Department, both through directly addressing pay gaps across multiple attorney job series and a broader effort to excise salary histories from the federal hiring process.

Last month, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which represents more than 6,000 career federal prosecutors, called on the Justice Department to review how it compensates attorneys as part of the diversity, equity and inclusion review required by President Biden’s executive order aimed at improving diversity in the federal workforce.

The group noted that assistant U.S. attorneys often make as much as $40,000 less per year than attorneys elsewhere at the department, despite having similar levels of experience and responsibilities. The association also called on the department to examine whether its appointment of unpaid special assistant U.S. attorneys should be excised along with other unpaid federal internships.

The crux of the association’s argument is that the pay disparity between assistant U.S. attorneys and other Justice Department attorneys, and the use of unpaid special prosecutors, means pursuing a career as a federal prosecutor is less attainable for women and people of color, who research has shown accrue greater student loan debt over the course of their education.

“Put simply, under-compensation is a principal barrier to maintaining a positive workplace in U.S. Attorney offices,” the association wrote. “While student loans impact nearly all law school students, the issue uniquely impacts students of color and U.S. Attorney offices are not equipped to recruit diverse students who are most impacted by large debt burdens. It is averse to the goals of the president’s [diversity] order to continue relying on the goodwill and commitment of AUSAs to do their job without adequate and equitable compensation compared to their Main Justice colleagues.”

And last week, the DOJ Gender Equity Network, which is composed of around 1,000 Justice Department employees, called on the Office of Personnel Management to ban the practice by which federal agencies ask for job applicants’ salary histories during the hiring process. Biden’s executive order on diversity in the federal workforce directs OPM to examine this issue, although it carves out a possible exception in cases where an applicant provides his or her salary history unprompted.

The group argued that the use of salary history as part of the hiring process perpetuates racial, gender- and sexual orientation-based wage disparities both in the federal government and the private sector. And allowing an exception for applicants who provide their salary history voluntarily would continue to perpetuate the pay gap.

“We fear that this exception would swallow the rule,” Young wrote. “For example, if a highly paid attorney at a large law firm seeks to negotiate a salary increase, he can evade the purpose of a salary history ban by simply volunteering the information. To truly break the cycle of wage discrimination and close the pay gap, the government cannot reward or penalize people for their pay in prior jobs, regardless of whether an agency solicits it or the applicant provides it without prompting.”