Federal workers are "sick and tired" of being in the middle of fights over the debt ceiling and shutdowns, union president says.

Federal workers are "sick and tired" of being in the middle of fights over the debt ceiling and shutdowns, union president says. Siriwat Nakha / EyeEm via Getty Images

Federal Pay and Benefits Won’t Be Used as a Bargaining Chip in Debt Ceiling Talks, If NTEU Has Any Say

National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said his union is prepared to push for better pay and benefits, as well as to protect federal workers from attacks to their rights and workplace flexibilities.

Officials with the National Treasury Employees Union on Monday said that their legislative agenda for this year consists of three main goals: expand pay, benefits and workplace flexibilities “where possible,” protect those benefits when necessary, and avoid becoming a bargaining chip during debt ceiling negotiations.

In an interview with reporters, NTEU National President Tony Reardon reiterated his organization’s support for a bill to provide federal employees with an average 8.7% pay increase in 2024, as well as legislation that would provide up to 12 weeks of comprehensive paid family leave to federal workers each year.

“Paid parental leave is a benefit that for many families has been life changing, and now we’re supporting legislation to expand that to cover family and medical issues,” Reardon said. “[An internal survey of NTEU chapter presidents] found that one-third said their family has experienced a medical issue [that would be covered by the new leave proposal], and that just shows how profoundly positive the impact would be . . . The federal government needs to step forward, be a model employer and lead on these kinds of issues.”

That survey also found that NTEU members have had to make changes to their financial strategies to deal with the fact that their pay raises—2.7% on average in 2022 and 4.6% this year—have not kept pace with inflation. According to the union, 79% of respondents reported cutting back on discretionary spending due to higher costs; 62% said they’ve had to reduce how much of their paycheck goes into savings, while 39% reported incurring more credit card debt.

Reardon said that his union is also keeping a close eye on upcoming negotiations over the debt ceiling. Federal workers are “sick and tired” of being caught in the middle of these fights, he said, referring both to the uncertainty that comes from a potential lapse in appropriations or government debt default as well as the tendency to be used as bargaining chips in those talks. As part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling in 2011, federal employees were required to increase their contributions to their defined benefit annuities through the Federal Employees Retirement System.

“I think the biggest thing we learned [from 2011] was to get in the ears and the offices and anywhere else we can with our friends on Capitol Hill to make sure that they are standing with us to push back and make sure we’re not the bargaining chip, so to speak,” he said. “That’s what we do: we continue to fight back as hard as we can, and make sure we’ve got friends in Congress to help in that regard, and I personally have been talking to folks in the administration about these things.”

With the House now controlled by Republicans, Reardon said the union is ready to defend federal employees and agencies from attacks, be they from efforts to reinstate Schedule F, which would have stripped tens of thousands of workers of their civil service protections, or to broadly slash access to telework, as in the House-passed SHOW UP Act, which would have uniformly reverted the federal government’s telework policies to pre-pandemic levels.

“I think there are some folks on Capitol Hill where it doesn’t really matter what federal employee unions do, what federal employees do, they’re going to come out against federal employees,” he said. “They’re going to look at ways to try to take funding from federal agencies, ways to try—like Schedule F—to try to inhibit unions from doing what they need to do. There are a lot of different ways they could try to make sure we can’t reach out to our members or contact people we represent in the workplace, as we saw in the last administration. So you can take that playbook and assume a lot of those things are going to continue.”