Editors note: Tuesday night on 9 News Now at 11:00 Investigative Reporter Russ Ptacek identifies the highest paying federal agencies and individual federal worker bonuses up to $62,895.
WASHINGTON (Asbury Park Press) -- The federal government paid at least $439 million in employee bonuses last year, down $43 million since new austerity restrictions were announced.
The largest merit awards went to senior executives in Washington and air traffic controllers, an Asbury Park Press investigation found. The highest award, $62,895, went to 16 employees from agriculture to NASA.
Click here to search federal employees by name to see their 2011 earnings.
The $439 million in bonuses may be a staggering amount - enough to buy the former New Jersey Nets, valued at about $357 million by Forbes magazine - but it represents just 0.4 percent of the $105 billion in salaries for most of the government's civilian employees. In 2010, at least $482 million was paid in bonuses, according to federal data.
"This is the same president that criticized the banks for distributing bonuses when they were under - some of them involuntarily - government support," said Grant Cardone, of Los Angeles, a regular commentator for Fox Business News. "Federal employees are already overpaid and coddled with pensions and a variety of benefits.... How many roads could have been fixed or people put to work with this money?"
Bonuses have long been part of the federal pay structure as a way to motivate employees and to reward good work, government labor experts have said.
Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Budget and Management, said "the Administration eliminated bonuses for all political appointees, directed agencies to adopt more rigorous personnel management processes, and set a cap to reduce spending on awards for career staff, saving taxpayers an estimated $200 million this year alone."
The caps and freezes will "save taxpayers over $3 billion by the end of this year and more than $60 billion across the next decade," she said.
The payroll data, obtained by the Press from the federal Office of Personnel Management, account for about 1.3 million employees, but excludes the military, departments of Defense and Treasury, the FBI and CIA, the White House, Congress and other independent commissions and agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service. The data are from fiscal 2011, which ended Sept. 30. The data covered base pay and bonuses, but not overtime.
Federal civilian employees in New Jersey had a base salary of $900 million, ranking it 27th of the 52 jurisdictions, including Washington and Puerto Rico. The average salary for New Jersey's federal employees was $83,749, fifth highest among the states. And the average bonuses for each of the state's 10,700 employees was $249.
In a memorandum sent last June to department heads, OPM Director John Berry and Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said agencies must limit total spending on performance-based awards to 5 percent of salaries for senior managers, and 1 percent for lower-ranking employees.
Those new standards are in force this year, but departments were advised to start trimming back their merit pay during 2011.
Under a 2010 law, federal pay rates were not increased in 2011 or 2012, although employees were still able to get raises if they received a promotion. The Senate in March rejected an attempt to extend the pay freeze for another year.
The Obama administration has recommended a 0.5 percent pay increase for civilian federal employees that would start in January. The last raise for civilian federal employees was 2 percent in January 2010. Obama instituted a pay freeze for senior White House staff making $100,000 or more on his first day in office in January 2009.
Secret Service pay
The Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest department with 316,000 employees, distributed the most award money, nearly $68 million. The Department of Homeland Security gave out $61 million in awards.
The Secret Service, embroiled recently in a prostitution scandal in Colombia, handed out out $6 million in bonuses, or an average of $901 per agent. The average pay for all 7,000 Secret Service employees, including support staff, was $88,219 last year.
But agents generally receive 25 percent over their base pay, according to Dan Emmett, a retired special agent who spent 21 years in the Secret Service and wrote a book, "Within Arm's Length," about his experiences.
This money, called Law Enforcement Availability Pay, is paid to agents who must be available to work 40 additional hours per month in addition to their normal working hours.
"If my boss knows that next Wednesday I'm going to have to travel to Istanbul with the president, that I am going to have to work a certain number of hours beyond a normal work week, that is what that pay is for," Emmett said. "I have to stress, though, that Secret Service agents do not do it for the money. They do it for a sense of duty, to protect the president."
Reported by Jean Mikle, Asbury Park Press