U.S. Penitentiary Canaan in northeastern Pennsylvania is authorized to hire 408 full-time staff, yet the high-security federal prison has struggled to recruit and retain correctional officers and other workers due to salaries that don’t compete with surrounding employers.
If the prison were included in the federal pay locality for the New York metropolitan area, which borders neighboring counties, it would be able to offer starting salaries that are 15% higher than the nearby state correctional facility. But because of the staff vacancies – the prison is currently down 46 employees, or 88% of its authorized level – it does not meet the employment criteria for moving out of the Rest of U.S. pay locality.
“If we were at full staffing, we would meet the requirement,” AFGE Local 3003 Secretary Courtney Bogarowski told members of the Federal Salary Council at a Nov. 5 meeting in Washington.
USP Canaan isn’t alone. Across the country, many federal worksites don’t qualify for higher locality pay – any many more aren’t even being considered – because they do not have enough workers to meet employment thresholds that have been arbitrarily set by the Federal Salary Council, an advisory panel composed of union representatives and pay policy experts.
“We have for many years argued that the GS employment criteria be dropped because it bears no relevance to a local labor market,” said AFGE Public Policy Director Jacque Simon, who is a member of the council.
The council first adopted the use of employment data to justify the expense of having federal wage surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But since BLS stopped conducting unique wage surveys seven years ago, the council now relies on national pay and occupational data already collected by the agency – meaning the employment test no longer has relevance, Simon said.
Simon said other factors already used by the council are sufficient for determining if an area should receive higher locality pay, including the size of the public-private wage gap, the percentage of employees commuting in and out of a given location, and adjacency to an area that already receives higher locality pay.
Simon led the three labor representatives at the council meeting in moving to waive the GS employment criteria for three counties that were seeking to be added to higher-paying localities. The council agreed on only one waiver – for Wayne County, Pa., home of USP Canaan – because the staffing shortfall was the only thing preventing the county from qualifying.
The council agreed to consult with BLS and the Office of Personnel Management on the continued use of employment criteria and to make a recommendation for action at its next meeting.