Thursday, November 20, 2008

Addressing the Overseas Pay Gap

This was in today's Washington Post:

Diplomatically Trying to Close Overseas Pay Gap

By Joe Davidson

Michael Keller has worked on five continents during his 15 years in the foreign service. He's been in Germany, where the standard of living is pretty good, and the Central African Republic and Cambodia, where he could only hope that his three children suffered nothing more than bumps and bruises because of poor medical care.

He likes his work, but he's always confronted with a big source of frustration -- the overseas pay gap.

When State Department diplomats are posted abroad, they lose locality pay. That's the amount added to a federal worker's salary based on where they work.

Since 1994, when locality pay started, the increase for federal employees in the D.C. area has amounted to almost 21 percent. Moving overseas from the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters and other area installations means workers lose that differential.


There is support, on Capitol Hill and in the administration, for legislation that would close the gap. Committees in the House and Senate have approved such measures.


But that support has not moved Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican physician also known as "Dr. No." He's earned that nickname because he relentlessly uses a Senate procedure to hold up bills that require additional federal spending unless the legislation provides money to pay for its project.

"Congress should be focused on improving conditions of workers who have lost their jobs or may lose their jobs and not on handing out huge raises to foreign service officers who already receive very generous benefits overseas," said John Hart, Coburn's communications director.

That kind of talk could make a diplomat get very undiplomatic. But John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, knows how to keep his cool (which should come in handy when he's transferred to Iraq next year).

Closing the gap is not a pay raise, he said calmly. "It's fixing an unintended inequality."

Naland doesn't quarrel with Coburn's right to oppose legislation closing the gap, "but his hold is preventing his 99 colleagues from voting," Naland said. "That's just the way the Senate works nowadays."

He does quarrel, however, with Coburn's notion that foreign service officers are seeking huge raises on top of other big benefits. It's true that diplomats get a housing allowance and, in some cases, dangerous duty or hardship duty pay. But that doesn't negate the need to close the gap, especially for lower-level diplomats.

Senior foreign service officers get those same benefits, but their pay is not reduced by the locality amount when they go abroad. That cut applies only to the junior and mid-level diplomats.

Furthermore, Naland said, the "allowances were never meant to obviate the need for the basic locality pay adjustment that all other federal employees get."

That's what upsets foreign service officers -- working cheek by jowl with colleagues from the CIA, who might pretend to be foreign service officers, and other agencies whose pay is not cut when they leave the D.C. area.

"It becomes an equity issue," Keller said.

And foreign service officers don't have the option of staying in D.C. They spend most of their careers outside the country.

The issue is compounded when a diplomat takes his family abroad because the family often loses the spouse's income, too. Sonja Keller had a growing career as a journalist and public relations officer when Michael was sent to the Central African Republic.

"The financial impact was significant," she said. Her income was greater than his, but the family had to give that up. "Once I left my job, my career basically stopped," she said.

She worked in embassies where her husband was posted, but it was "generally nominal stuff," she said.

That's not the kind of information that would attract potential foreign service officers, even if they were driven by public service more than big bucks. It also makes folks like Keller wonder if they should stay in the foreign service, when their retirement funds are being shortchanged by the current pay system."

Diplopundit covers this issue very well here. She says "I know what she [Sonja Keller] means; and that's a pretty familiar spouse story. For FS spouses, the "good" jobs are paid normally about $12-13/hour; about how much you get paid as a nanny in London. I knew somebody who was paid $2o/hour once and her boss thought that was way too much money. At one post, another FS spouse, the commissary manager who took care of our tiny store had an advanced degree in dance therapy. I'm quite sure she was not an exception. There really are "good jobs" out there, as long as you don't complain that you, too, have brains. I knew somebody who left a 100K job in DC and eventually took a 36K job in some blissful country - with free housing, of course (some expensive free housing, huh?).

There are way too many somebodies with the same story ... And onebody says its greedy for folks to asked for the closure of this pay gap? Go tickle yourself silly!

The situation is even more dire for those with same-sex members of household. MOHs are not allowed to compete for even the nominal jobs available to spouses unless there is no qualified Eligible Family Member (EFM). Even then, some posts will not consider an MOH at all, or if they do, will hire them at the salary of a local hire, which is generally substantially less than what they pay EFMs. So while yes, we do sometimes get danger or hardship pay and we do get a housing allowance, our partners can usually not work at all (and this is in addition to having to pay to fly to and from the country, an expense opposite sex spouses do not have to deal with). Even if our partners stay home (which the Department admits diminishes productivity), they do not receive the Separate Maintenance Allowance that opposite sex partners receive. So when we go overseas to serve, our income is cut, our partner's income is lost, and we may still have expenses here in the states (for example, if you have a mortgage and the amount you can rent it for is less than your monthly payment).

Naland is right. This is not a huge pay raise. It is the right thing to do to help people continue to serve the country.


DS said...

Thanks for the link, Digger. I have added an update in my original post linking back to you so folks would have an idea that this is an issue not just for spouses but an even harder road for partners.

k said...

I'm new to the FS, but isn't locality pay only for those who move to DC from elsewhere in the US? For those of us who live in DC, who took 50% pay cuts to join the FS, moving overseas is about the only way to finally earn enough to make ends meet- thanks to housing being paid for. But each time we come back to DC for training we don't get locality pay for the remaining 20 years of service? While all others do? That seems a little off, no?

Digger said...

People who join the FS from DC do get screwed during their initial training period in that they get neither locality pay nor per diem. But that does not last your entire career. If you were assigned to DC out of A-100, you would start getting locality pay as soon as your assignment started. If you go overseas on your first tour, you will get locality pay at the beginning of your first DC tour.

k said...

thanks so much for clearing that up for me!
and i completely support the need for equal treatment for ALL partners. I'm glad to see someone giving it the attention it deserves.
the discrepancy in locality pay for new & mid vs upper level FS officers, and vs other departments is hopefully something that can be resolved soon. again, thanks for keeping that in the spotlight.