FAA workers plan lawsuit challenging pay caps

By David McGlinchey

A loose coalition of Federal Aviation Administration employees who are upset about their salaries being capped have decided to launch a class action lawsuit against the agency, the group's unofficial leader said Wednesday.

Under FAA's performance pay system, more than 800 long-term employees are at the top of their pay band and are not eligible for base salary increases. Those employees, however, can receive annual awards for good performance.

Thousands of other FAA employees - including air traffic controllers - are exempt from this rule because of union agreements, or they already were above the maximum pay limit when the rule on pay caps went into effect.

Employees with frozen base salaries called the different compensation regulations unfair, and said they are losing thousands of dollars in retirement benefits, locality pay increases and overtime pay.

In a Jan. 14 e-mail, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said she wants "compensation policies to be as consistent as possible," but the agency will not take action on the pay bands, because market surveys show that FAA workers are paid more than their counterparts in the aviation industry.

For the past year, disgruntled workers have been represented and organized by Mark Lash, an FAA manager in Oklahoma City. But Lash has grown tired of the intense research and communications work and he is passing his leadership role on to Tim O'Hara, an FAA manager in Washington.

"My hope had always been that through increased awareness and pressure, the agency would make the adjustments necessary to fix the inequity ... that wasn't the case," Lash said in an interview Tuesday. "This is a relay race, and I was ready to hand off the baton."

On Wednesday, O'Hara told Government Executive that the affected employees will file a class action suit against FAA, and he is planning to issue a public call on Feb. 1 for workers who are interested in taking part in the legal action. Several employees - including O'Hara - are in the process of selecting a law firm to handle the case.

O'Hara, who has worked for FAA for two decades, said he "never expected to see my name in a newspaper," or "bring a complaint against the agency." He said, however, that the disparity in pay regulations angered him and he doesn't believe the situation will be resolved unless employees resort to legal action. O'Hara has already received commitments from about 40 FAA employees.

Greg Martin, a spokesman for FAA, said Blakey explained in her agencywide e-mail that the organization is dedicated to a compensation system that is linked to private sector pay rates. Because of that, he said, the pay bands cannot be adjusted.

"I think it's clear that we are not going to take the expedient course of action and simply continue to raise pay bands," Martin said. "They are market-based."

The agency has not disputed any of the allegations made by O'Hara or Lash. In her e-mail, Blakey said the inconsistent pay regulations are the result of "an environment where by law we are required to negotiate pay with our labor unions."

She also acknowledged "that for many employees, the issue is not how much they are paid, but rather the different rules that apply to other employees."