KITTERY, Maine -- During a Friday afternoon shift change at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen stood outside Gate 1 opposing President Donald Trump’s pay freeze that would affect 2 million federal civilian workers nationwide, including the ones driving in and out of the yard behind her.
Just ahead of Labor Day, Trump announced his intention to freeze the promised pay raises that were slated to go into effect next January, citing his reasons as the need for performance-based pay and the high cost of employee salaries among “serious economic conditions.” But following push back, Trump said he would be “studying” the matter over Labor Day weekend.
The 2.1 percent raise for civilian federal workers would have gone into effect without presidential interference.
“I’m concerned about the president’s threat to freeze the pay raise,” Shaheen, D-N.H., said Friday. “This is part of the Defense Bill, it’s part of the other appropriations bills that Congress has acted on. I think our federal employees, particularly our shipyard workers, deserve that pay raise at a time when we’re hiring here, when we’re trying to keep people on the federal payroll. We’re trying to keep people working at the shipyard and we know we have a lot of people to hire because of the work that needs to be done.”
Currently, the Senate version of the general government appropriations bill includes a 1.9 percent pay increase for federal employees, which ultimately would override the freeze. Shaheen said she wants to see at least the 1.9 percent, “because that’s at least keeping a promise.”
“The idea that we’re not going to give them the pay raise that they’ve earned, I think, just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I’m hoping the president will reverse his thinking on this. I think he’s heard from members from both sides of the aisle, both Republicans and Democrats, that this is not a good thing, that we need to go ahead and follow through and make sure people get the increases they deserve.”
There are approximately 7,800 employees currently working at the shipyard, and with submarine maintenance only growing, the yard will look to hire hundreds more in the coming year.
Mark Vigliotta, president of Federal Employees Metal Trades Council Local 836, said the past week of conversation on the shipyard regarding the pay freeze has been “pretty heavy.” It’s been confusing to new employees, he said, and all were disappointed.
“To retain the talent that we’re trying to hire, it’s just gong to hurt the federal workforce,” Vigliotta said.
Trump’s pay freeze would be the first for civilian federal workers since 2011 to 2013, when President Obama declared a three-year freeze as the nation recovered from the recession.
The freeze would also affect Pease Air National Guard Base. In a statement issued earlier this week, Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, director of public affairs, said, “The news is disappointing for our federal workforce, but we’ve weathered far worse to include a three-year pay freeze from 2011 to 2013 as well a furlough in 2013. Unfortunately, it’s not an uncommon occurrence.”
Also on Friday, Shaheen celebrated with shipyard Cmdr. Capt. David Hunt and union leaders her success in repealing the Department of Defense’s per diem policy, which intended to reduce DOD costs, but was criticized as placing unfair economic burden on traveling shipyard workers. It reduced the per diem rate payable to the worker for each full day away for extended periods of time. According to Shaheen, the policy forced civilian workers, including many at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, to pay out of pocket for meals and incidentals.
The Government Accountability Office found DOD did not fully assess the administrative costs of implementing the policy nor other potential impacts, such as worker willingness to volunteer for long-term travel assignments.
Shaheen said the repeal received majority bipartisan support and was hailed as a win for shipyard workers across the nation.
Vigliotta called the now-repealed policy “a big deterrent to go on the road.”
Shaheen said she also discussed with shipyard officials the continued dry dock expansion and further needed capital investments. Initial work has begun to upgrade Dry Dock 1 and design work on the dry dock super flood basin is well underway. The $7.2 million contract for that work will set the stage for work on the flood basin itself, expected to cost $109 million, according to Gary Hildreth, deputy public affairs officer. Work to overhaul the pier next to Dry Dock 1 has just started as well, he said. At this point, the final costs to completely retrofit Dry Dock 1 are unknown.
At a recent event in York, Hunt said it was crucial to modernize Dry Dock 1 so it can accept the newer Virginia class submarines.
The need to modernize dry docks at all four public shipyards was underscored in a GAO report last fall. It estimated the Navy needs to spend $4 billion in the next 20 years on dry docks alone, and $20 billion overall to modernize the yards’ facilities, which it rated as “poor.