Workforce Wonk

By Alyah Khan

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The fiery debate over contractor salaries

FCW readers have responded in droves to a recent article about a labor union pitching the idea of having a cap on pay for federal contractors. But if there's little chance of such a proposal finding its way into law, there is even less chance of FCW readers reaching consensus on whether the idea is a good one.

The American Federation of Government Employees sent a letter May 12 to the leadership of the Senate Budget Committee recommending that contractor salaries be restricted so that they don’t receive taxpayer reimbursements of more than $200,000 annually.

The union explained in its letter that while politicians continue to attack federal pay levels, there has been barely any talk about contractor salaries.

“What’s been conspicuously missing from the debate, of course, has been any discussion of pay for contractors – even though the number of contractors exceeds the number of federal civil servants and many contractors earn several times the maximum federal salary,” Beth Moten, AFGE’s legislative and political director, wrote.

Many readers responded to the union’s proposal by defending contractors and their pay, often noting that they don’t have the same job security as federal employees and work longer hours.

“Contractor pay is already restricted,” one reader wrote. “Usually, the contracts are bid based on the lowest bidder … and if the government does not like the price they can always deny the contract.”

Another reader, identified only as “contractor,” said that what companies pay their employees is an internal matter but added that higher paid contractors are “under constant pressure to perform and make revenue and profit goals, things which a federal manager does not have to worry about.”

The contractor continued, “if you want to save money on federal salaries, fire some of the underperforming feds that are regularly tolerated and take advantage of that savings to increase the salaries of the feds who perform well.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of aisle, a reader identified as “Fed up fed” said there was truth in Moten’s statements. “Several of my co-workers retired as feds or simply froze their fed retirement to go work for our contractors [and made] more than twice the salary they were making as feds,” the federal employee said. “And in most of cases, they were doing about half the work and had half the responsibility they had as feds.”

Michael, a fellow reader, also agreed with the union’s proposal, but said he is not a union supporter. “I don’t even like unions and people who work there, but I must say this article and the notion it proposes is a rare orchid in a turgid swamp of political rhetoric,” he wrote. “Way to go Beth Moten!”

Other readers, such as Ron from Washington, D.C., shared more of a middle-ground perspective in their response to the letter. Ron said in his comment that he thinks the focus on salaries might be “misleading.”

“As a senior government manager responsible for both government and contractor employees, it is a challenging time to retain high-quality individuals,” Ron wrote. “For government to work in these difficult economic times, civilians must be given fair compensation and industry must…offer reasonable rates.”

Opinions aside, clearly the union has hit a hot-button issue that maybe needs to be explored further. Do you think contractor salaries deserve more attention from Congress and the Obama administration?

Posted by Alyah Khan on May 16, 2011 at 12:20 PM


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