Pay System for Feds, Designed for Equity, May Disadvantage Women

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By Louis C. LaBrecque

The rigidity of the federal pay system can help level the playing field between men and women, but it also can work against women.

Women often leave federal jobs for family reasons and come back to agencies in larger numbers than men, attorney Cheri Cannon told Bloomberg Law. “When they come back, they are put back where they were while their peers are way ahead,” said Cannon, a managing partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC in Washington who oversees the firm’s federal sector practice. The government tends to reward years of service and employees who “have been steadily working their way through the system,” she said.

The government’s reliance on previous salaries in setting pay also can be a disadvantage for women, Cannon said. Women generally earn lower salaries than men because of historical inequities, and the problem is particularly acute for older women, she said. This is why some states have banned employers from asking for this information, Cannon said.

The federal government has done some things very well, Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, told Bloomberg Law. Assigning salaries based on job duties rather than other attributes such as individual hiring managers’ discretion is “the only way to get pay equity,” she said.

“In the federal government, what you have is that the job pays the same no matter who holds it. When you deviate from that, you open the door to discrimination,” she said.

The Office of Personnel Management, the government’s central HR office, didn’t provide comment.

Calculating the Pay Gap

There are about 2.1 million civilian federal employees, making the government one of the largest U.S. employers. Many observers agree that the government does a better job on pay equity for women than the private sector as a whole.

The pay gap between men and women in federal agencies is about 7.6 percent, compared with about 22.2 percent for the private sector, said Mallory Barg Bulman, vice president for research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington-based nonprofit. As of 2017, the government-wide average salary was $86,298 for men and $80,213 for women, compared with a median salary of $48,932 for men and $40,040 for women in the private sector, she said.

The partnership’s data for federal employees comes from average salary figures from the Office of Personnel Management. Its data for private-sector employees comes from median salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Monique Morrissey, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute said “less discretionary pay” in the federal pay system “is likely the main reason the gender pay gap is smaller in the federal government.” Morrissey analyzed pay data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and came up with statistics showing similar disparities in the pay gap between the public and private sector.

As of March 2018, there were 4,715 male and 2,471 female career executives at federal agencies, Bulman said.

Specific Positions Targeted

Tully Rinckey looks at pay for particular jobs at specific agencies when it takes a pay equity case, according to Cannon.

In a recently settled case, the firm’s client left one intelligence agency for a private-sector position and was hired years later by another intelligence agency. The client in her new position ranked “202 out of 206” people in pay when compared with her peers, even though “she had all this experience that the men didn’t have,” Cannon said.

“We looked at all 206 people” at the agency in the same type of job, Cannon said. “You ask for their backgrounds, resumes, and other information. It’s very expensive because it does require data analysis of individual agency databases,” she said, without providing further details about the settlement.

— Jasmine Ye Han contributed to this report

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