FAA will not lift pay caps on long-term employees

By David McGlinchey

The Federal Aviation Administration has decided that it will not take any short-term steps to alter its pay system, which has left more than 800 long-term employees at the top of their pay band with no opportunity for base salary increases.

In a Jan. 14 agencywide e-mail, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey acknowledged the validity of the employees' complaints about the situation, but said that no short-term fix is in sight.

Under the FAA performance pay system, 829 of more than 47,000 employees at the agency have reached the top of their pay bands. Several hundred more are expected to reach that point each year. Those employees are eligible for lump-sum payments for good performance, but not increases in their base pay.

Thousands of other FAA employees, however, are exempt from this rule because of union agreements or because they already were above the maximum pay limit when the rule placing caps on base pay was put in place.

Employees affected by the cap have complained that freezing base salaries can cost employees thousands of dollars in lost retirement benefits, locality pay increases and overtime pay. Mark Lash, an FAA manager in Oklahoma City, who emerged last year as a voice for affected employees, has called on FAA officials to lift the pay cap.

The agency, however, has said it wants to solve the problem of inequity in pay caps by extending them to other employees. Agency officials have acknowledged that this process could take a long time.

"I recognize that for many employees, the issue is not how much they are paid, but rather the different rules that apply to other employees. I share that concern because I believe our compensation policies should be as consistent as possible," Blakey wrote in her e-mail. "However, we operate in an environment where by law we are required to negotiate pay with our labor unions."

Blakey noted that a recent survey showed that FAA employees are paid more than workers in the industry they regulate.

"The latest market data does not make a case for increasing the bands ... I have therefore decided not to make any adjustments to the core bands at this time," she wrote.

On Tuesday, Lash said he had received a similar explanation during a recent meeting with top agency officials. He does not agree with the FAA position - including the idea of tying agency compensation to the airline industry - but he said he appreciated the cordial and honest exchange of ideas.

"Part of my goal was to get them to understand the problem, and they fully understand it," Lash said. "But they strongly believe in the pay cap, and they strongly believe in being tied to the market."