Controllers May Be Exempt From Federal Pay Freeze

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Air traffic controllers are among the highest-paid U.S. government workers and may find themselves exempt from a federal employee pay freeze proposed by the Obama administration. The U.S. employs about 15,500 controllers who earn an average of $136,000 per year. Those controllers last year negotiated a contract with the FAA that provides raises of at least 3 percent annually over three years. On Dec. 8, the House approved a proposal from President Barack Obama that would apply a two-year pay freeze to roughly 2 million federal workers, including controllers, in a bid to save the government $60 billion. The House has approved it, but Senate has yet to act on the measure. Meanwhile, the president's ability to apply the freeze to controllers may hinge on the wording of a 1996 law that created the controllers' collective-bargaining process.

In recent years controllers have fought bitter battles with the FAA regarding compensation and work hours that led them to work under FAA-imposed work rules when contract negotiations stalled. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made settling FAA/controller disputes a top priority when he entered office. Obama's pay freeze may complicate matters. If the freeze is found to be legal with regard to the 1996 law, the government faces the possibility of losing any goodwill earned from controllers after a series of bitter contract disputes. If controllers are made exempt, the government will lose an estimated $669 million to controllers salaries, according to Businessweek. And controllers aren't the only segment of FAA workers that arrive at compensation packages through collective bargaining agreements.