White House wants to slow zombie pay raises

Some of the best-yet-least-known perks in the civil service benefits packages are WGIs, which stand for within-grade increases but are colloquially pronounced “wigs.” And they are now targets in a White House plan to overhaul government worker/retiree benefits.

WGIs are worth about 3 percent, they are virtually automatic and once they have enough time in their pay grade — one, two or three years — they get the increase. That is even if Congress or the White House have imposed a general federal pay freeze. The Federal Times estimated that tens of thousands of white collar federal workers got the in-grade raises each year, even during the three-year pay freeze from 2011 to 2013.

Upon learning how the semi-automatic 3 percent raises work, one top outsider assigned to White House government overhaul is said to have referred to them as “zombie pay raises.’’

Longevity raises first came to White House attention during the Carter administration. The president wanted to ‘reform’ and modernize the civil service. The primary goal was creation of the Senior Executive Service. It was formed as top career employees in the then grades 15, 16 and 17 “volunteered” to enter the SES.

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The idea was to develop an elite career corps that would be mobile and, by the way, more attune to the White House and top political appointees in their agency. But WGIs became an issue too because of their semi-automatic nature and high cost.

Probably in order to make them look a bit silly, the Carter White House dubbed WGIs as “being there” raises, borrowing  from the late 1970s Peter Sellers-Shirley MacLaine movie of the same name. “Being There,” considered by many to be a comic masterpiece, played on the public perception of Washington as being totally out of the loop.

It was about a hapless D.C. gardener ignorant of anything but TV cartoons and commercials. Through a series of accidents — mostly being in the right place at the right time — he became a TV talk show guest and economic adviser to the President. The idea was to show that nobody in D.C. really has a clue about reality.

It worked. Elimination of the WGIs was not in the final civil service reform package that became law.

The Carter team wanted to ridicule and eliminate WGIs as part of its Civil Service Reform Act, but like most assaults on the civil service it failed. The raises, which many defend as taking politics and favoritism out of the performance rating system, are still with us.

There are 15 general schedule grades, each with 10 longevity steps. WGIs are granted every year for steps 2, 3 and 4; every two years in steps 5, 6 and 7; and every three years in steps 8, 9 and 10, unless workers are rated unsatisfactory by their bosses. The vast majority of people get the raises — too many, according to critics.

The “being there” tactic failed. The Civil Service Reform Act did not eliminate them.

The new management proposal by the Trump Administration would not eliminate WGIs — yet. Instead, it would just make workers wait a little longer — one year in each step, according to The Washington Post — for the 3 percent longevity reward.

So what are the odds your WGI is about to be trimmed? It’s been a long time since anyone took a shot at them and this is a very short session for Congress. But fair or not, the WGIs do provide fodder for politicians anxious to show how crazy things are here in the swamp.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Amelia Brust

Because the International Space Station does not have a way to wash dirty clothes, astronauts shoot their laundry into the Earth’s atmosphere to be incinerated. Consequently, a crew of six can go through 900 pounds of clothing per year.

Source: Smithsonian.com