The 2019 presidential budget proposal includes a pay freeze for federal employees for the federal fiscal year, and documents the administration’s intention to rely more on “pay for performance” structures than the standard pay increase schedule.

The existing federal salary structure “rewards longevity over performance,” according to budget documents, which pointed specifically to tenure-based ‘step-increase’ promotions “that white-collar workers receive on a fixed, periodic schedule without regard to whether they are performing at an exceptional level or merely passable.”

Employee union groups, however, have labeled the pay-for-performance structure, and the corresponding removal of poor performers, as an attack on due process for federal employees.

“Federal workers shouldn’t be hired or fired on the whims of political appointees whose allegiance is to their political party, not the country’s best interests,” said American Federation of Government Employees national president J. David Cox Sr. “By stripping employees of their due process rights and firing those who reject his politics, President Trump is opening the door for rampant corruption, discrimination, and worker intimidation.”

“There’s due process and there’s over process,” said Robert Shea, principal at Grant Thornton and former associate director at the Office of Management and Budget, pointing to a table included in the 2019 budget proposal that details the complex process employees already have for reporting improper punishments.

Trump's 2019 budget proposal includes a chart illustrating how federal employees can review major disciplinary actions. (Source 2019 budget proposal analytical perspectives)
Trump's 2019 budget proposal includes a chart illustrating how federal employees can review major disciplinary actions. (Source 2019 budget proposal analytical perspectives)

The 2019 budget proposal relies on employee compensation cuts and changes to reduce the deficit by more than $70 billion by 2028. Much of this comes from reducing the government’s contributions to retirement and health programs and eliminating some programs such as special retirement supplements and the Federal Employee Retirement System cost of living adjustments.

The 2019 budget proposal estimates that adjustments to government contributions to the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program will reduce the deficit by $192 million in 2021 and achieve a total reduction of nearly $2.8 billion by 2028.

Similarly, the 2019 budget proposal estimates that changes to federal retirement benefits will reduce the deficit by nearly $2.6 billion in 2019 and add up to more than $68 billion in reductions by 2028.

Changes to federal employee retirement benefits include:

  • Increasing employee contributions to retirement by one percent per year until it reaches 50 percent
  • Elimination of the special retirement supplement
  • Elimination of FERS cost of living adjustments and reduction of civil service cost of living adjustments by 0.5 percent

Such adjustments are not a new concept.

“The federal government contributions to employee benefits have always been levers in budgeting,” said Shea. In fact, federal employees have already contributed $200 billion in deficit reduction through cuts to pay and benefits.

However, federal employee unions have promised to fight the use of such levers in any final budget decisions.

“It appears that the administration is throwing every harmful proposal it could gather at the civil service system and federal employees,” said National Treasury Employee Union national president Tony Reardon. Taken together, these proposals represent a full-scale assault on what has been a bedrock of our democracy: a civil service made up of skilled professionals who are committed to the taxpayers they serve, not the politicians.“

The 2019 budget proposal also seeks to combine federal employee leave into one pool, rather than separate divisions for sick, annual or holidays, a system increasingly popular in the private sector. However, under the current system, employees can accrue sick leave over years to eventually cover medical emergency or other major life event.

The time that employees spend at work, on the other hand, would be more restricted under the Trump administration’s proposal. According to Shea, an appendix of the budget would cut down the time employees can use for union duties:

“Unless authorized in accordance with law or regulations to use such time for other purposes, an employee of an agency shall use official time in an honest effort to perform official duties. An employee not under a leave system, including a Presidential appointee exempted under 5 U.S.C. 6301(2), has an obligation to expend an honest effort and a reasonable proportion of such employee’s time in the performance of official duties.”