Danger Danger, Bang Bang — State Department Eyes Changes in Danger Pay

 Posted: 15:15 EST

 

No, the world is not getting less dangerous but according to our sources, the State Department is eyeing changes in danger pay that could result in the loss of danger pay for a number of posts worldwide.

A group inside the State Department called the Danger Pay Working Group reportedly noted that the current practice of awarding Danger Pay has “veered from the original legislative language” which narrowly awards the additional compensation for a few extreme circumstances such as active civil unrest and war. Under the proposed changes, the definition of Danger Pay would reportedly revert to — you guess it, “the original legislative language”  which would result in a probable loss of Danger Pay for a number of posts worldwide.

The State Department is also revising its Hardship Differential Pay. The idea appears to involve moving some of the factors which previously resulted in Danger Pay into the Hardship calculation.  The number crunchers estimate that this may not result in equivalent levels of pay but apparently, the hope is “to compensate employees to some degree for these factors.”

Uh-oh!

Let’s back up a bit here — the Danger Pay allowance is the additional compensation of up to 35 percent over basic compensation granted to employees (Section 031 and 040i) for service at designated danger pay posts, pursuant to Section 5928, Title 5, United States Code (Section 2311, Foreign Service Act of 1980).

Here is the full language of 5 U.S. Code § 5928 (via Cornell Law)

An employee serving in a foreign area may be granted a danger pay allowance on the basis of civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism, or wartime conditions which threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well-being of the employee. A danger pay allowance may not exceed 35 percent of the basic pay of the employee, except that if an employee is granted an additional differential under section 5925 (b) of this title with respect to an assignment, the sum of that additional differential and any danger pay allowance granted to the employee with respect to that assignment may not exceed 35 percent of the basic pay of the employee. The presence of nonessential personnel or dependents shall not preclude payment of an allowance under this section. In each instance where an allowance under this section is initiated or terminated, the Secretary of State shall inform the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of the action taken and the circumstances justifying it.  [Section effective Feb. 15, 1981, except as otherwise provided, see section 2403 of Pub. L. 96–465, set out as a note under section 3901 of Title 22, Foreign Relations and Intercourse].

In 1983—Pub. L. 98–164 inserted provision that presence of nonessential personnel or dependents shall not preclude payment of an allowance under this section, and that each instance where an allowance under this section is initiated or terminated, the Secretary of State shall inform the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate of action taken and circumstances justifying it.

In 1984 — Pub. L. 98–533, title III, § 304,Oct. 19, 1984, 98 Stat. 2711, provided that: “In recognition of the current epidemic of worldwide terrorist activity and the courage and sacrifice of employees of United States agencies overseas, civilian as well as military, it is the sense of Congress that the provisions of section 5928 of title 5, United States Code, relating to the payment of danger pay allowance, should be more extensively utilized at United States missions abroad.”

We note that specific provision added in 1983 but it appears that in 2005, the State Department amended the Foreign Affairs Manual (3 FAM 3275-pdf) to say this:

Danger pay may be authorized at posts where civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism, or wartime conditions threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well being of employees. It will normally be granted at posts where the evacuation of family members and/or nonessential personnel has been authorized or ordered, or at posts at which family members are not permitted.

The Global Terrorism Database indicates that there were 3,421 terrorist incidents in 1984, the year when Congress recognized that danger pay allowance should be more extensively utilized at U.S. missions overseas. The same database indicates that there were 11,952 terrorist incidents in 2013. Hard to argue that the world has become less dangerous in the intervening years.

Below is a list of posts with danger pay based on the latest data from the State Department or see snapshot here:

DOS | Top Danger Post Assignments | Feb 2015

DOS | Top Danger Post Assignments | Feb 2015 (click on image for larger view)

 

Post Hardship Differential, Danger Pay, and Difficult-to-Staff Incentive Differential (also known as Service-Needs Differential) are all considered recruitment and retention incentives. These allowances are designed to recruit employees to posts where living conditions may be difficult or dangerous.

 

 

We cannot say which posts will be on the cutting board, but it seems reasonable to assume that the changes would impact posts in the lower brackets.  It is also possible that State may ditch the seven danger pay rates (currently at 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35) and come up with fewer rates at 15%, 25% and 35%.  Potential fallout at various posts abroad? Let’s see:

1. Security Funding Allocations | What kind of security funding would posts like Bamako and Nogales get if they’re no longer 10% danger posts?

2. Check FSBid | We don’t have tons of folks lining up for jobs in Juba, Lagos, Jeddah, Ciudad Juarez or Bujumbura, do we? Are we going to expect longer lines of bidders once the allowance to those posts is removed?

3. EFMs | Eligible Family Members receive danger pay while working in embassies but do not receive other differentials. The loss of danger pay would affect not just the employee but also the working EFMs. Given the meager salaries for EFM jobs, good luck hiring security escorts in Abuja or Bujumbura.

4. FSOs with Student Loans | Don’t you need a combined 20 percent hardship/danger pay post to be eligible for the State Department’s student loan payback program? Wouldn’t this drive younger officers to just head for Afghanistan or Pakistan instead of Algiers or Juba?

5. First and Second Tour (FAST) Officers | Typically go out on their first two tours on directed assignments. They go where they’re sent by the mothership. They get equity points based on danger pay and differentials that help determine their next assignment.  We understand that if you do Tijuana, you used to have a good shot at Buenos Aires. With these changes, that probably will no longer happen.

6. Brownie Points | Service to Bujumbura or Lagos will get you an onward assignment to where?

 

The changes  at bureaucracies like the State Department are seldom a case of “spontaneous combustion” among working group members. Often, there is an external cause.  We suspect, but cannot confirm that congressional interests is driving these proposed changes.  In 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO)  reported that State had not measured the effectiveness, specifically of hardship incentives, and recommended that State systematically evaluate the effectiveness of such measures, establishing specific indicators of progress and adjusting the use of the incentives based on this analysis.  In 2009, the GAO once again, reported that State has not “systematically evaluated the effectiveness of its incentive programs, despite recommendations to do so.” Agency officials apparently cited the difficulty of evaluating the impact of any single incentive because of the numerous factors involved. At that time, the GAO also complained that State did not comply with a congressional mandate to evaluate recent increases in hardship and danger pay.  It is highly likely that the GAO is again, looking under the hood, and the State Department is trying to get ahead of the curve.

One insider admits that there are “a few weird anomalies” in danger pay posts that have crept into the system over the years. You can self-drive at some danger pay posts, you can’t at others. There are spouses at one post, but not in others.  And how is it that Erbil and the Erbil Diplomatic Support Center do not have the same danger pay rates?

To establish danger pay, a post must submit the danger pay factors form (DS578 pdf) that enumerates specific conditions that justify danger pay. Allowances specialists who prepare assessments that assign points using a standard methodology then review the forms.  The Danger Pay Working Group is then responsible for reviewing danger pay factors forms to ascertain whether conditions exist to justify payment of the danger pay allowance.

The danger pay factors include 1) post’s operating status (ordered, authorized), 2) acts of violence (killing, risk of death/injury, aggravated battery, kidnapping, sabotage, property damage, extortion, rioting, hijacking), 3) environmental conditions (terrorism, civil war, civil insurrection, warfare conditions), 4) host government protection, and 5) travel restrictions (restricted areas, use of armed guards or armored vehicles).

Where do you put what’s going on in Mexico’s border posts — where narcotics traffickers are hindering anti-drug laws through extreme violence and intimidation? Hardship but not danger? When would the narco-terrorists acts move from a simple crime to civil insurrection? (see Three from US Consulate General Ciudad Juárez Dies in Drive-By Shooting).

What do you do with Saudi Arabia? (Warning: Wikileaks-sourced story here on terrorist funding in Saudi Arabia). Harleen Gambhir, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told International Business Times that since ISIS’ Baghdadi declared the kingdom to be a new ISIS wilayat (province), the  group’s strategy has entailed boosting capabilities of those sympathizers and encouraging sporadic, lone-wolf attacks in the kingdom.  In January this year,  the AFP also reported about the fourth anti-Western attack in Saudi Arabia in as many months.  What kind of danger factors would these get?  Might you also remember one of our posts on the poor sad saga of USCG Jeddah‘s new consulate compound?

And poor Bujumbura and it’s 5% danger allowance that may potentially disappear soon. The terrorist organization al-Shabaab, based in Somalia, has threatened to conduct terror attacks in Burundi and may target U.S. interests.  When do you consider a threat a “hardship” and when does it become a factor is calculating  “danger?”

A senior government official had apparently told employees that “this is not going to be such a big deal.” We’re not sure about that. If folks have bidded on posts with 20% danger pay like Bangui or Nuevo Laredo and find out next month that they’re no longer eligible for that allowance, they won’t be happy campers in CAR or Mexico. These changes have real consequences primarily to post morale and productivity and potentially for security funding allocations.

As with any changes, there will be gainers and losers. What can you do? Call up AFSA. Not sure differentials are something the Department must negotiate with AFSA but this is potentially a significant change in service conditions and also for security funding allocations.  Say, what kind of security funding would posts like Algiers, Riyadh or Matamoros get if they’re not 15% danger posts anymore?  Same as before? Really? AFSA should be able to explain, particularly to people overseas what’s going on.  Also talk to your front office, help make sure that your input from the  field gets heard at your regional bureaus; after all, you’re the ones out there.

We all can probably agree that the Department need to smooth out the kinks in this incentive program to make it more reflective quantifiable of the dangerous world where our people serve. As a taxpayer, I appreciate that.  But — if State does change the danger pay allowance but is still unable to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of this and other incentives like hardship and service-need differential, the GAO will not go away, Congress will kept asking questions, and these proposed changes will not be the end of it.

 

5 responses

  1. >>As Domani says, is anyone going to bid on Juba or Bamako if they can make 20% more money in Vienna?<<
    I cannot imagine a number so large that the number of Juba bidders would outnumber Vienna bidders.
    In my career I spent almost all my time abroad, and served only 4 years in DC. A lot of factors went into creating my 10 bid lists, but money was never one of them. I weighed the nature of the position, the quality of the schools, the quality of life, the tourism aspect, but never once did I bid on a post, or not bid on a post, because of its COLA, hardship pay, or danger pay. I saved more money at some posts than others, but I barely noticed.
    Your mileage may vary!

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  2. Doug,

    Let me offer a real life example of what we’re talking about here. I’m based at a 15 percent hardship/15 percent danger pay post. A colleague of mine transferred from here to Vienna, Austria last summer. Vienna obviously gets no danger pay and no hardship allowance, but it does get a COLA to cover the higher cost of living in Austria. With his COLA, he reports his take home salary is just a little bit less than what it was in Saudi. If he had kids, he thinks his salary would actually be a bit more. Under the management proposal currently on the table, my post would lose its danger pay and 5% of its hardship differential, effectively a 20% salary cut. As Domani says, is anyone going to bid on Juba or Bamako if they can make 20% more money in Vienna?

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  3. After working a few years in State OIG I was gobsmacked by the pervasive mendacity of posts with respect to COLA, differential, and hardship questionnaires. And I’m disappointed that you, Domani Spero, ramble on at length about the vague morale-enhancing effects that flow from chiseling the taxpayers.
    Given State’s abysmal record of acquiring from Congress all the resources it needs to do its job, what ensues is very much a zero-sum game. One post lying to get a higher COLA takes much needed funds from all the other posts in the world.

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