Pay Inequity

By David McGlinchey

Senior officials at the Federal Aviation Administration said last week that they are aware of employees' concerns about pay caps, but they are unable to remedy the situation in the short term.

Ventris Gibson, FAA's assistant administrator for human resource management, said the inequitable pay situation developed after FAA employee unions negotiated favorable compensation packages for their members. As a result, employees who are not part of those bargaining units have different compensation arrangements. During an interview Friday with Government Executive, she said agency officials want to rectify the situation in future labor negotiations.

"Nothing can be cured overnight; as you know, some things take time," Gibson said.

The controversy was sparked by an issue paper written by Mark Lash, a manager with the FAA in Oklahoma City. In his paper, Lash complained on behalf of 829 FAA employees who have had their base pay capped under the FAA pay-for-performance system. Under the FAA pay regulations, some long-term employees are awarded lump sum payments for good performance - instead of salary increases - when they hit the top of their pay bands.

Thousands of other FAA employees, however, are exempt from this rule because of favorable union agreements or because they already were above the maximum pay limit when the rule was put in place. Lash said that a frozen base salary costs employees thousands of dollars in retirement benefits, locality pay increases and overtime pay. He has called on FAA officials to remove the pay cap for the affected employees.

FAA officials did not dispute Lash's calculations, but they said there is no quick fix or easy decision to be made. Gibson said that FAA Administrator Marion Blakey is reviewing the situation and attempting to develop a plan that would resolve complaints.

"The easiest course of action would be to simply uncap the pay bands, or simply refuse to uncap the pay bands," said Greg Martin, FAA assistant administrator for public affairs. "The one thing we have to be particularly careful of ... we can't undertake a decision that could be either unsustainable or either compounded and transferred to succeeding administrations."

Gibson said that instead of releasing the 829 affected employees from the pay cap, the agency would like to bring exempt employees back under it during union negotiations. She acknowledged, however, that it is "not very easy to do ... especially when you have the types of unions that we have."

She described FAA employees unions as "very good."

In a separate interview Wednesday, Lash said he doubts the agency will be able to convince union members to place themselves under the pay cap.

"I think the agency would agree that it will be difficult to take back benefits already given in the current contracts," Lash said. "However, even if they are successful, it will be many years down the road, and until that time, they need to level the playing field and treat all employees the same."

FAA officials acknowledged employee concerns about the pay cap, but Gibson said that agency employees generally are well paid. Blakey has also made this point in speeches and statements.

"FAA employees are among the highest compensated employees in government," Gibson said. "We do want to make sure that the public understands that our workers are well paid."

Lash said, however, that his complaints were never about the comparative compensation at the FAA.

"That's not the issue at hand; the issue is disparate treatment," Lash said Wednesday. "Why is one group being hit by this, and the majority of the employees are exempt from the policy? That's the issue."