Pay disparities hamper efforts to deploy civilians to war zones

By Brittany R. Ballenstedt May 1, 2008 Federal agencies are not providing adequate or equitable compensation to workers who volunteer for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new report by a House subcommittee.

The report, issued by the House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, found that there are both real and perceived differences in compensation and other incentives between federal employees deploying to war

zones from different agencies and with different job classifications.

"Just as there is work needed to improve how our federal government organizes and conducts interagency missions, we must ensure that there is a coordinated effort to provide civilian volunteers for deployments with equitable and sufficient incentives and benefits," said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., chairman of the subcommittee.

President Bush requested $249 million in his fiscal 2009 budget proposal to build a response corps of more than 2,000 civilian personnel from 15 federal agencies and a civilian reserve corps of about 2,000 experts from state and local governments and the private sector. Snyder said improvements in pay and benefits will be crucial to recruiting qualified personnel to volunteer for the corps.

The subcommittee examined pay policies at various agencies, including the Defense, State and Energy departments. Its report concluded that special pay rates for General Schedule and Federal Wage System employees who perform the same jobs or operate under the same conditions might not be equitable. Discrepancies could be heightened if pending legislation is passed that would enhance incentive and benefits packages for certain classes of federal employees, the subcommittee cautioned.

When personnel from different agencies are deployed to work together on teams in comparable assignments, disparities in compensation and benefits stand out, the report found. The subcommittee recommended that the Office of Personnel Management develop an incentive and benefits package that would apply to all civilians deployed to war zones and submit legislative recommendations to Congress.

"This legislation would not only provide equity to deployed civilians across departments and agencies, but would also serve as a recruiting tool for the administration's contemplated civilian response and reserve corps," the report said.

The report pointed to a recent survey by the American Foreign Service Association that found pay and benefits to be the top factor contributing to a Foreign Service officer's willingness to serve in Iraq. Of nearly 4,300 respondents, 68 percent said extra pay and benefits would motivate them, 59 percent said patriotism, and 48 percent said career advancement.

Unlike military personnel, civilian employees generally are not required to serve in war zones, so agencies frequently rely on volunteers. But according to the Congressional Research Service, agencies are failing to meet their staffing targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, for example, only 668 out of 729 posts were filled as of Feb. 1, 2008.

"As it is for the military, a motivated and qualified all-volunteer force must be preferred to one populated by reluctant draftees," the report said. "Tomorrow's potential civilian volunteers will well note how today's deployed members are supported and compensated for these risky assignments."

A CRS study included in the report showed that State, Defense and Energy employees serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are eligible to receive their basic salary plus 70 percent in differentials for danger and hardship service. Under law, the annual ceiling on basic and premium pay for all employees deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan is $212,100.

The subcommittee said it plans to continue studying the benefits, incentives and medical care of deployed civilians this year. CRS will study other federal agencies to determine whether their benefit packages differ from those provided by the State Department, and the Government Accountability Office also will review the implementation of benefit policies for civilians who deploy to combat zones, the report said.

Under the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization Act, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is required to submit to the committee a review of benefits available to federal employees to determine if they provide enough incentives to volunteer for a deployed position. The report, which was due on March 30, has not yet been submitted.