With the government set to shut down in just two weeks without action from Congress, Senate Republicans are advocating an across-the-board pay freeze for civilian federal workers in 2021 as part of their plan to fund agencies amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
Employee organizations and Democratic lawmakers reacted with outrage after Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee quietly unveiled their pay-freeze proposal earlier this month, with the largest union of federal workers calling the plan a "cruel slap in the face to those who have risked their lives to maintain government services for all Americans during the worst health crisis in our lifetimes."
"We cannot let this stand. I will fight tooth and nail to stop this proposed pay freeze and ensure that the good work of federal employees is fairly compensated."
—Sen. Chris Van Hollen
"Trying to outdo President Trump in disrespecting federal employees by eliminating even the paltry raise he put forth is completely unwarranted and will only worsen the government's ability to function effectively," Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said in a statement. "There is no justification for denying our civil servants a decent pay increase next year. We call on lawmakers to reject this insulting maneuver."
Jessica Klement, staff vice president for programs and policy at the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, noted that "this is a year when federal employees have stepped up to respond to a global pandemic, with tens of thousands on the frontlines working on behalf of the American people and contracting Covid-19 in the process."
"Yet they face the prospect of a pay freeze," said Klement. "That's not just an affront to public service; it's a policy that risks losing highly competent and productive employees from the ranks of our federal government, to the detriment of the citizens they serve."
The GOP proposal—which falls short of Trump's call for a meager 1% across-the-board pay increase for federal workers in 2021—came as lawmakers are working to avert what would be a devastating government shutdown amid twin public health and economic crises with no end in sight. If Congress fails to reach an agreement or Trump refuses to sign off, the government will shut down on December 11.
Earlier this week, House and Senate appropriators reportedly reached an agreement on a framework for an omnibus spending package, but the details of the $1.4 trillion legislation—including whether the deal includes the GOP's proposed pay freeze or coronavirus relief—remain secret. Some House Democrats have pushed for a 3% across-the-board pay raise for civilian federal employees.
"Even with an allocations deal in place," Roll Call reported, "there is no guarantee that a bipartisan omnibus package can be written and passed... before current funding expires. Differences in funding levels between the House and Senate masked an array of partisan policy disputes that will still need to be resolved for an omnibus deal to come together."
While it is unclear whether the GOP push for a pay freeze will survive the negotiation process, the proposal served as evidence of Senate Republicans' priorities as workers across the U.S. suffer from the widespread economic fallout sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
"As our federal employees work every day to deliver vital services to the American people, Republicans continue to try to strip them of their rights, politicize the merit-based system, and deny them fair pay for their hard work," Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in a statement. "We cannot let this stand. I will fight tooth and nail to stop this proposed pay freeze and ensure that the good work of federal employees is fairly compensated."