Did you get a raise last year? Seventy-four percent of White House staffers did, according a Gawker analysis of the White House's annual salary reports to Congress. Probably for the great job they're doing with the economy.
Earlier this week, USA Today published an analysis of the federal workforce showing that it pays to work for the government: The number of feds earning more than $150,000 per year has increased tenfold since 2005, and the number earning above $180,000 has increased twentyfold. That prompted us to take a look at White House salaries, and it turns out that working for Barack Obama is not a bad gig.
Obama famously instituted a salary freeze for all White House staffers earning more than $100,000 on his first day in office because "during this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington."
But there wasn't a lot of belt-tightening for the rest of the staff: We crunched the numbers and found that, of the 344 White House employees who were listed on the payroll in both White House's 2009 and 2010 salary reports, 253—or 74%—got raises in 2010. And among that lucky overwhelming majority, the average raise was 9%. And plenty of people making more than $100,000 a year did get a raise as long as a title change came with it.
That's a lot better than most people did! According to the compensation-tracking firm Hewitt Associates, base salaries for executives and salaried workers went up 2.4% over the same time period. And John Challenger, the CEO of the executive consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, says "nine percent is double what we'd see for most executives, and even more for the rank and file. In 2009, companies were in recession at least half the year. Raises were much more in the range of 2% to 3%, maybe 4% to 5% for executives." And while Challenger says its not unusual for companies to reward 75% of staffers with annual raises, last year many firms skipped the practice. "Many more companies than normal cut raises altogether," he says.
"Nine percent would be unusual," says Paul Rowsen, managing director of WorldatWork, a trade association for human resources professionals. "Most employers froze pay last year, and some even reduced pay to get through tough times."
Now, there are some important caveats: First of all, these are mostly staffers making less than $100,000, so the amounts aren't obscenely large. The biggest raise in absolute terms went to Jennifer Psaki, who went from making $113,000 a year as a special assistant to the president and deputy press secretary to $150,000 as a deputy assistant to the president and deputy communications director, a 33% bump. The biggest in percentage terms went to speechwriters Cody Keenan, Jonathan Lovett, and Jeffrey Stephens, all of whom got 66% percent raises, from $45,000 to $75,000. Secondly, the 9% average is calculated from the 253 people who got raises, because that's what we think "average raise" means. If, as the White House insisted to us is more accurate, you include all the staffers who didn't get raises, the average drops to 6%—or more than twice what the average white-collar worker saw. And thirdly, these salary increases include, as in Frankel's case, promotions.
But the larger point is fairly inescapable: Despite Obama's well-intentioned desire to visit some of the pain of the recession on his own staff, the White House essentially governed itself last year like there wasn't an "economic emergency" going on. That's probably because it's not like revenues were collapsing and there's no way they could make budget without layoffs—it's in one sense silly to expect White House employees to be buffeted by the same economic forces that lash the private sector. Why lay people off, or cut salaries, if there's no economic imperative to do it?
On the other hand, the impulse behind Obama's salary freeze makes intuitive moral sense: The people running this country ought to know what it feels like for most of its citizens, and most of its citizens aren't enjoying 9%—or even 6%—raises. Either way, it's important to know precisely how removed White House staffers are from the fiscal realities of most Americans, and even the similarly situated Americans working in the private sector.
We asked the White House for comment, and spokesman Nicholas Shapiro insisted that the real average raise for White House employees was 3%, arguing that the figure should exclude people who got promotions along with their raises (we think the common usage of the term "raise" encompasses situations in which salary increases are accompanied by title changes). He also argued that, as mentioned above, we ought to have included staffers who didn't get raises in calculating the average raise, which doesn't make sense to us. He also said it's just the way it goes in the White House: "It is not uncommon in the second year of a new administration for many low level staffers to change positions and move up the ranks to hold new jobs with increased responsibilities. President Obama is committed to continuing to reduce costs in government while providing high-quality services to the American people."
UPDATE: Nick Shapiro, the charming young man from the White House who offered comment for this story—and got an $18,000 raise last year—just e-mailed to say, "Next time you write a story, how about you use my quote instead of your perception of what I meant or said. Was a real pleasure working with you, hope I don't have to do it again." Oh don't get so down, Nick! We understand how frustrating it is when people refuse to simply let you take over a story you object to and insert a statement of whatever length you please. So we 'll give in. For the record, here's the full statement Nick sent us:
White House raises on average were 3% not the inaccurately reported 9%. People who got entirely new jobs, not uncommon after the first year of a new administration got new salaries, which were on average 6% higher than the salary of their previous job. In fact, on his first day in office, President Obama instituted a pay freeze for all staff making over $100k, and none of these folks received any raise whatsoever. In addition, in the President's FY 2011 budget he included a pay freeze for all senior political appointees across the entire Administration. It is not uncommon in the second year of a new administration for many low level staffers to change positions and move up the ranks to hold new jobs with increased responsibilities. President Obama is committed to continuing to reduce costs in government while providing high-quality services to the American people.