Publication Date: January 2009
Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service
Research Area: Government
Pay increases for current federal employees and cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for retired federal employees often differ because they are based on changes in different economic variables. Increases in pay for civilian federal workers are indexed to wage and salary increases in the private-sector, as measured by the Employment Cost Index (ECI), whereas federal retirement and disability benefits are indexed to price increases as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Both the ECI and the CPI are calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Under the terms of the Federal Employees' Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-509), pay for civilian federal employees is adjusted each year to keep the salaries of federal workers competitive with comparable occupations in the private sector. The annual increases in federal employee pay are based on changes in the cash compensation paid to workers in the private sector, as measured by the ECI. Under certain circumstances, the President may limit the annual increase in federal pay by executive order. Federal law also requires Social Security benefits and the pensions paid to retired federal employees to be adjusted each year. The COLAs for both Social Security and civil service pensions are based on the rate of inflation as measured by the CPI.
Congress has linked increases in federal pay to the ECI so that wages for federal employees will remain competitive with wages paid by firms in the private sector. Congress has linked COLAs for Social Security and federal retirement benefits to the rate of increase in the prices of goods and services in order to protect retirement income from losing purchasing power through the effects of inflation. In general, wage increases reflect both improvements in the productivity of labor and increases in the general level of prices in the economy. Consequently, when measured over long periods of time, wages tend to rise faster than prices. Because COLAs for retirees do not reflect increases in the productivity of people who are still in the work force, COLAs do not make retirees financially better off. COLAs merely protect retirees from becoming financially worse-off as prices rise over time.
Increases in retirement benefits for retired federal employees were first linked to the CPI by law in 1962. Increases in Social Security benefits have been linked by law to changes in the CPI since 1973. Before then, Congress periodically adjusted Social Security benefits through legislation. Congress chose to tie increases in these benefits to the CPI in order to make the process less subject to political influences. The overall price level as measured by the CPI was 434% higher in 2006 than it was in 1969. As of January 2007, federal civil service retirement benefits have risen by 451% since 1969, while Social Security benefits have risen by 570%. Average wages among all workers in the economy have risen by 584% since 1969. Salaries for civilian federal employees have increased by 381% since 1969, and the salaries of Members of Congress have increased by 288%.
This report is updated annually.