A blue Christmas for federal workers
Salaries were so low that workers could not pay for the groceries
President-elect Donald Trump appears to be an Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to his plans for federal workers. He wants to institute a hiring freeze, fire poor performers and hit their pocketbooks by ending automatic raises and curbing generous pensions. A century ago federal workers had no such sugar-plums to be taken away — or even visions of them. Press reports starting in mid-December in 1916 stressed that many federal workers were akin to the Cratchit family in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: “In many cases,” read one newspaper account, “these employees hesitated to accept charity because they were working, but their real condition was called to the attention of union officials by friends.”
The newly-formed Federal Employees Union noted that salaries were so low “that they would not permit of any enjoyment on Christmas.” Major inflation in food prices as a result of preparation in the event of America’s entry into World War I added to the salary squeeze.
To support that view, the press delineated accounts of charity to federal workers. In one instance, Santa Claus was predicted to come early, with automobiles getting filled with food and goodies for the families of federal workers in need of aid. In another account, employees of the Interior Department raised $27 for an ill janitor struggling to support his eight children.
Contrast that scenario with the White House celebration planned by President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson replete with a “huge fir tree” with electric lights and “quantities of toys” for the little relatives and their invited friends.
There was a planned Christmas stocking of sorts for the workers. The press reported that lowpaid workers had “the knowledge that Congress is preparing to grant them a substantial increase in compensation.” Under the congressional proposal, employees earning less than $1,200 a year would get a 10 percent increase, those between $1,200 and $1,800 a five percent raise. The average annual salary was about $948, no matter that the Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that $1,082.80 was the least possible income to live decently in Washington.
The increase seemed a done deal in Congress, and federal workers were generating over 100,000 signatures from citizens from every state on a petition urging President Wilson to agree to the measure. The petitioners hoped to get a half-million signatures but fell far short of their goal.
Unfortunately, the good tidings for the raise didn’t emerge into legislation by Dec. 25. And the proposal went into hibernation after the holidays. Page-after-page in newspapers recounted numerous other matters for Congress in the new year until Jan, 24, 1917: a front-page story in the Washington Herald, this time with a capital-letter headline that covered five columns. At last, a pay raise, with the Senate, after a bitter debate, passing a bill by a vote of 37 to 26, providing a pay hike but much less than proposed. Employees earning $480 or less per year would receive a 15 percent raise, those between $480 and $1,000 a ten percent increase. About 200,000 workers would be affected.
The measure was destined to go to a conference committee, but nobody was really happy. The deficit hawks called the measure an “extravagance” and a test question: “...if Congress grants these increases under this bill it will grant similar increases to employees covered in other appropriation bills, like the post office bill, the agricultural appropriation bill and others.” Then there was the $300 million deficit that loomed by the end of the fiscal year, and the view that “once you have raised salaries, ...you can never reduce them again.”
Sen. Reed Smoot. Republican from Utah, was credited with getting it through the chamber. “Parsimony is not economy,” said Smoot. “I believe in economy in government expenditures, but it is a mighty poor policy to begin the conservation with employees who receive less than enough to live on.”
“Horizontal increases are not wise as a general thing,” contended another supporter, “but we have the high cost of living now. The underpaid clerks need help.”
Fortunately for federal workers, the conference committee restored the pay hike to the original proposal of 10 percent for salaries less than a $1,200, five percent for pay between $1,200 and $1 800.
There was only one bah-humbug part of the final resolution.
The increase, beginning on July 1, 1917, was to be in effect for only one year.