Air Traffic Controllers may receive exemption from the two-year pay freeze proposed by President Obama on November 29th. Controllers’ wages, which are some of the highest in the federal government, are governed under a collective-bargaining agreement that could trump the proposed federal pay freeze.
The pay freeze was proposed to save more than $60 billion over the next ten years and to help reduce the deficit. It is expected to affect about 2 million government employees. It is currently making its rounds in Congress, where it passed the House on Dec. 8.
The average wage of more than 15,000 air traffic controllers is $136,000 a year excluding benefits. Additionally, under a contract negotiated with the FAA, controllers receive 3 percent annual raises in base pay for the next three-years in order to reverse cuts imposed during the Bush administration.
The President must now decide whether to freeze their pay and risk the ire of controllers or to exempt them and risk angering other government employees. According to FAA estimates, staying in the good graces of controllers will cost approximately $669 million dollars.
The FAA currently employs more than 48,000 workers of which more than 36,000 belong to one of more than 40 bargaining units like the controllers’ group, which is the largest. These groups operate under a 1996 law that allows the FAA to operate more like a business. This law could prevent the freeze from being applied to controllers.
Regardless of the outcome, this is a politically sensitive issue that is only exacerbated by cuts made in the last decade. During the Clinton administration, controllers negotiated a wage package similar to current levels that was cut by 30 percent during the Bush administration. Those cuts, which took effect in 2006, were intended to save the FAA $1.9 billion over a five year period, but they also cut morale. As the Obama administration took the reigns, restoring controller pay was at the top of the list and negotiations began on the current contract.