President Barack Obama may exempt air-traffic controllers, among the highest-paid workers in U.S. government, from his proposed federal pay freeze because their wages are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement.
The 15,677 controllers, who earn an average of $136,000 a year, received 3 percent annual raises in base pay under a three-year contract negotiated last year with the Federal Aviation Administration. The agreement reversed cuts imposed during President George W. Bush’s administration. Controllers are atypical among federal workers because they bargain with their agency over pay.
Obama faces a choice between upsetting controllers with a freeze or other U.S. workers by creating an exemption, said William Swelbar, a research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s air transportation center in Cambridge. “I would be incredibly surprised if this president didn’t abide by a collective-bargaining agreement,” he said.
Obama proposed a two-year pay freeze for about 2 million federal workers on Nov. 29 to save about $60 billion over a decade and help rein in the budget deficit. The House approved the plan on Dec. 8, and it’s pending in the Senate.
Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, declined to comment. Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman, referred questions to the Office of Management and Budget.
‘Hostility and Distrust’
Whether the freeze applies to employees covered by collective-bargaining agreements “will be addressed” in a presidential directive after Congress acts on the plan, Moira Mack, an OMB spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.
Exempting controllers would maintain goodwill Obama won from workers with the contract, which the FAA estimated would cost $669 million. The Bush administration had imposed controller pay cuts in 2006 “bordering on the unconscionable” and spawning “hostility and distrust,” according to a panel Obama tasked with setting pay rates.
Certified controllers, excluding trainees, were paid an average of $136,000 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the contract’s first year, according to the FAA. The amount excludes benefits and includes overtime pay, incentives and other sorts of extra compensation, according to the agency.
While controllers are the largest FAA work group, they aren’t the only one that bargains collectively. About three- fourths of the FAA’s almost 48,500 workers are represented by 41 bargaining units, according to the agency Administrator’s Fact Book of March 2010.
Controllers bargain with the FAA over wages under a 1996 law intended to blunt calls for privatizing the agency and to let it operate more like a business, said Sam Whitehorn, former Democratic general counsel for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
That law may prevent Obama from applying the freeze to controllers, said Whitehorn, executive vice president with McBee Strategic Consulting LLC in Washington. “Politically, he would be hard-pressed not to apply” the freeze, unless the law forbids it, he said. Congress could act to freeze workers’ pay if Obama doesn’t, he said.
Obama “absolutely should not” exempt controllers, said Jerry Glass, president of F&H Solutions Group, a labor-relations consulting firm in Washington. “You’d be hard pressed to be able to say that any one group has more of a legitimate reason to be exempt from the pay freeze than anybody else.”
Bush’s FAA administrator, Marion Blakey, cut pay 30 percent for new hires in 2006, aiming to save $1.9 billion over five years. She said she was trying to rein in wages that had become excessive under “a bad deal” that President Bill Clinton’s administration reached with controllers in 1998.
Obama pledged “to restore morale and improve working conditions,” according to a fact sheet from his presidential campaign. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has the FAA in his department, said six weeks after taking office that settling a pay dispute with controllers was “my number one priority.”
LaHood appointed former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, who reached the 1998 agreement with controllers, to lead the panel and resolve the dispute. The mediators “put us back to where we were” before the Bush cuts, Patrick Forrey, then president of the controller union, said last year.
The biggest pay increases under the new contract, now in its second year, were for new controllers. A worker hired Oct. 1, 2009, would earn $112,303 in the third year, 32 percent more than the $84,945 under the Bush plan, the FAA said in 2009.
Overtime, Other Pay
With expected overtime and other types of pay accounted for, controller pay increases would be 4 percent in the contract’s second and third years, the FAA said last year.
Controllers are among the highest paid workers in government service, according to a Web page published by Daytona Beach, Florida-based Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
In May 2008 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked air- traffic controller as the 12th highest-paying U.S. occupation by median annual wage, ranking below computer and information systems managers and ahead of airline pilots and lawyers.
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