GAO Retirees Seek Retroactive Raises

Posted April 9, 2010 at 5:23pm

Although analysts at the Government Accountability Office are on the verge of getting their 2010 merit raises, some of their retired colleagues are still struggling to receive their cost-of-living allowances from 2006 and 2007.

It has been two years since Congress passed a law requiring GAO officials to retroactively restore the COLAs of about 300 employees who were denied them in 2006 and 2007. But that legislation didn’t apply to employees who had already retired from Congress’ watchdog agency.

Ever since, those analysts have sought to get the same deal laid out in the bill: a lump sum of the denied raises and the resulting bump in their base salary, which would subsequently increase their retirement benefits.

But they hit a setback recently when the agency’s Personnel Appeals Board ruled that 36 of 37 retired analysts did not file their complaints in a timely manner. Though the ruling was made “without prejudice” — meaning those analysts can argue their case again — it puts in jeopardy the chance that some retired analysts will get to bring the case to court.

“It’s totally unfair because the legislation gave anybody who was still in the GAO their back-COLAs,” said Marcia Washington, who worked at the agency for almost 30 years before retiring in 2008 to care for her dying fiancé. “GAO knew that this was wrong. It’s like, why not do this?”

Washington was one of thousands of GAO analysts who offer sought-after advice to Members of Congress in hundreds of hearings every year. They produce reports and audits on everything from defense policy to the Recovery Act.

In 2006, then-Comptroller General David Walker restructured the agency’s pay structure, denying COLAs to Washington and a few hundred other analysts in the process. That move — along with some of Walker’s policies — created so much turmoil at the agency that a group of analysts formed a union. Now, that union is in negotiations with GAO officials on everything from pay increases to benefits.

Earlier this year, the two sides agreed on a COLA of about 2.4 percent for this year, and last month, they tentatively agreed on the range of merit pay. The agreement will ensure that every analyst who gets a performance rating of “meets expectations” will get at least a 1.6 percent merit raise on top of his or her annual COLA.

As of press time Friday, union officials expected the bargaining unit to approve the deal that night. Union President Ronald La Due Lake called it an “excellent agreement,” while Acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro called it “fair.”

“Both sides made compromises,” Dodaro said in a statement. “I believe we reached a fair agreement taking into account the current economic conditions.”

But as the union makes steady progress on changing policies within the agency, it can’t help the analysts who are retired. Still, La Due Lake said he supports their plight.

“We certainly feel it’s appropriate for all employees during that time to receive at least the equivalent of the COLA across the board,” he said. “From our perspective, that was a time when employees were harmed through a problematic implementation of a change in a system.”

Some retired analysts will at least get their day in court. Though the Personnel Appeals Board ruled that only one of the retired “petitioners” has filed a complaint within the time allowed, that analyst can now file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former colleagues in a similar situation. The retired analyst — Judy Lasley — was only denied a COLA in 2006, meaning she can only represent those who also were denied a COLA in 2006. Those who did not get a COLA in 2007 will have to go back to the appeals board.

GAO officials declined to discuss the PAB decision because the cases are still ongoing. But the appeals board agreed with analysts that Walker’s denial of COLAs in 2006 and 2007 violated the 2004 law that enabled him to make the pay structure changes in the first place. Essentially, Walker denied the raises to some employees who had a performance rating of “meets expectations,” and that, the board ruled, was illegal.

The law and its legislative history, the ruling states, “demonstrates that the Comptroller General was statutorily mandated to increase, in an amount to be determined by him after taking into account the criteria enumerated by Congress, the pay of all GAO employees in 2006 who … had performed satisfactorily.”

But Washington said she was frustrated that such a ruling was necessary at all.

“I don’t know why [the GAO] would balk at giving this to retired folks,” she said.