John Cook — The White House released its annual salary report last week, and as usual, it’s nice to work for Barack Obama: Most staffers who were there for more than a year got a salary bump. A bigger one than you did.
The last time we checked in on White House salaries, we found that an astonishing 75% of continuing staffers got raises from 2009 to 2010—a huge number given the fact that, according to compensation experts, most companies had skipped routine raises that year in reaction to the economic crisis that the White House was busy failing to solve. This time around—from 2010 to 2011—the ratio is a little less dramatic. Of the 270 White House staffers who have been there for more than a year, 146—or 54%—received raises. The average salary increase was 8%. If you look at only staffers who got raises, the average increase was twice that.
That’s a much bigger raise than the average white-collar worker got. According to a survey conducted last year by the human resources consulting firm Mercer, most firms were projecting a 3% increase in base pay for executives. White House workers did nearly three times as well. Overall, it should be noted, the White House’s salary budget contracted slightly, from $38.8 million to $37.1 million, largely because the number of staffers fell. The average salary also dropped from $82,721, or 65% above the median household income, to $81,765—or 65% above the median household income.
But high turnover left plenty of room for White House staffers climb up the ladder and snag huge pay boosts. One of Obama’s first acts as president was to freeze the salaries of all White House officials earning more than $100,000 because “during this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington.” Two years later, he extended that policy to all federal workers, using the same logic: “Small businesses and families are tightening their belts. Their government should too.” But the across-the-board freeze didn’t take effect until January 1, 2011, so the most recent report (which goes back to July 2010) features some eye-opening raises, like special assistant to the president for economic policy Matthew Vogel’s $59,000, 82% raise to an annual salary of $130,500, or director of African American media Kevin Lewis’ $36,000, 86% pay hike.
Both of those were accompanied by title changes indicating that the bigger paychecks came along with new duties. But almost half of the raises doled out by the White House in the last year—59, or 40% of all raises—weren’t accompanied by new job descriptions. One of them—special assistant and associate counsel to the president Michael Gottlieb’s 14% pay bump from $114,000 to $130,500—was a clear violation of Obama’s freeze on salaries over $100,000.
The White House says that many of those positions are considered nonpolitical jobs that come with their own pay schedules, and that what matters is that the total budget and average salary are decreasing slightly. But that doesn’t change the fact that White House staffers who stick it out are being rewarded, on average, for their continued service at a rate that far outstrips how the average white-collar worker is doing. The rhetoric behind the White House salary freeze was about making sure that the people engaged in leading the nation out of its economic mess share a sense of what American workers are experiencing. Unless roughly half of American workers saw their paychecks go up by an average of 8% last year (hint—they didn’t), that’s not the case.
Here’s the statement White House spokesman Eric Schultz released in response to our inquiries:
President Obama is committed to continuing to reduce costs in government, and that is why over the past year, the average salary of a White House employee went down, the total number of White House staffers went down, and the total amount spent on White House salaries went down. Pay increases were given for a variety of reasons, ranging from promotions to additional work responsibilities.