Mistake in federal job announcement: Recourse in holding agency to terms?
December 2, 2009 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Federal HR experts: Due to an "unfortunate mistake," I am being offered a salary less than that which is listed on the federal job announcement. This after investing an enormous amount of time, energy etc. in the application process. Do I have any recourse?

So, after a *tremendous* amount of personal time, effort and emotion invested, I have been offered a good job working for a federal agency in Alaska. The position is a GS-14; the job description says:

"Salary Range: 95,010.00 - 123,519.00"
"Series & Grade: GS-1035-14"
"In addition to the salary listed the selectee will also receive a cost of living allowance of 23%."

So I just got a call from the HR folks, making a formal offer. Here's the thing: The woman who called me said the salary listed on the job announcement was a "very unfortunate" mistake - the actual amount she was authorized to offer is $83,445 + COLA.

Needless to say this is dismaying, particularly since I invested so much time into interview preparation, getting my portfolio together, etc. etc. etc. Do I have any recourse here to hold the agency to the salary listed in the announcement?

Any guidance gratefully appreciated.

PS If it matters, I THINK what happened (I am totally not an expert -- this is just what I came up with after a little research) is this: In the Lower 48, you get a base salary ($83,445) plus a "locality adjustment." In Alaska, you do not get this "locality adjustment"; instead, you get the base salary plus a "Cost of Living Adjustment." If I'm right, the salary listed in the job announcement mistakenly includes a base salary AND a Lower-48 style "locality adjustment" (plus of course it says "In addition to the salary listed the selectee will also receive a cost of living allowance of 23%.")
posted by Alaska Jack to Work & Money (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like your chance of recourse is lessened because the error was in the job listing rather than the actual formal offer. I am not sure there's much you can do, especially if you'd like to take the job -- it feels like a lot of back and forth about the salary misprint may damage your working relationship with your superiors. I think it's unfortunate (in fact, I think it sucks) and you have my sympathies, but I'm not sure there's much you can do.
posted by kate blank at 1:41 PM on December 2, 2009

Seconding this -- the recourse you have is to turn down the offer, but that's about it. It does suck that you went to a lot of trouble trying to apply, but...what they say in the final offer is what counts.

And the final offer isn't anything you can live with. So your only recourse is to say no.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:47 PM on December 2, 2009

Government jobs are unlike most jobs in that there is a salary range the employer is theoretically obligated to stick to. But, here's the thing: Even if we accept that they made a mistake, and the range is lower than what they said it was, the $83k offer is still at the very low end of the range, right? They're still theoretically allowed to pay someone in this position much more.

So can't you negotiate, just like you would with any other job offer? "I really feel like I need X to support my Y..." "I feel I am worth K because of factor L..."

...whatever. Like any offer, you need to decide what your risk tolerance is. You might get more money if you reject the first offer, but they might just offer it to the next person who is willing to take the lower salary.

I agree that you're not going to be able to "lawyer" them into a higher salary- your only leverage is turning down the offer and asking for a better one.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:52 PM on December 2, 2009

Best answer: In the agency I work for (a "special district" in California) HR and the actual hiring manager are usually removed enough from one another that you shouldn't really need to worry about wrecking the relationship with the manager.

That said, if you haven't already discussed it, you should get the HR person to go over how increases are handled--i.e. in my organization, there are no merit raises, no annual raises (unless negotiated by a Union), etc. So, if you get hired in at the lowest point of the salary range, you are pretty much stuck there forevermore. If that is the case at this agency, then you should ask the HR person why they are bringing you in at the bottom of the pay scale with no movement in sight. It would be fair to ask what your peers are making and if you could come in at higher than the bottom (say, the 95K you expected) because of experience, education, etc. HR folks always try to bring new hires in at the lowest rate.

If they have a "step system" or some other way to bring you up in the pay scale to the midpoint after a few years service then you might look at the long run and not worry about getting the most you can upfront.

Now is the time to negotiate--if this is going to be an issue for you that you won't be able to get past, then don't take the job.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:52 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Given that GS pay schedules are standardized for all federal employees, and easily publicly viewable (eg, a 5 second google search shows $83,445 as being the actual GS 14 step 1 pay), I would guess you don't have much to go on here.
posted by skintension at 1:54 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is such a thing as a recruitment incentive which the agency *could* repurpose as a one-time payment to compensate you for the misunderstanding. I don't think they actually will, but it won't hurt to ask.


You could also ask to start at a higher step, i.e., GS-14/05 rather than a GS-14/01. This would probably be much more palatable to an HR office.

Don't give up on this, but also, don't poison the well if you intend to stay with the agency for a long time.
posted by grateful at 2:03 PM on December 2, 2009

Best answer: You were expecting a salary of between $116,862–$151,928. If they did, in fact, advertised the salary range incorrectly, the advertised salary range, after COLA, should have been $102,637–$133,434. The minimum salary you were expecting, $116,862, is right in the middle of this range. So just ask them to appoint you at a higher step so that you can get at least the minimum salary they advertised.
posted by grouse at 2:16 PM on December 2, 2009

Response by poster: Wow several good answers already!

Aside from the mistake in the advertisement, one of the sticking points seems to be that there are two different interpretations of "range". In past jobs that advertised a range, I've come in and negotiated a salary within that range. When I talked to the HR person today, though, she made it sound like anyone coming in would do so at the bottom end of the range, and work their way up over time. They are supposed to call me back tomorrow, and as agatha_magatha suggests above, I will be sure to ask how the step system works.

Any other insights or advice are very much welcome.

Oh, PS, one other thing. Grateful, above, mentions a recruitment incentive. The announcement actually said "AMENDMENT: A Recruitment Bonus has been authorized for this position. The closing date has also been extended until September 03, 2009." And so of course, when I asked the HR person how much the bonus was, she had no idea there even was a bonus, and said she would have to check with the hiring authority. :^/
posted by Alaska Jack at 2:51 PM on December 2, 2009

In every situation I've faced as a hiring manager, HR would say the same load of crap to the prospective hire, that the salary was always the low end of the range. It irritated me, because then I'd have to spend my discretionary raise budget on getting the employee up to the level of the other people on my team. Less for the rest of the team that way, maddening as a manager, and HR thought they were "helping."

What she said is baloney. The range is there, sure the lower end is lower than you like, but the middle is available. If the manager has already decided to hire you, the HR (evil person, always, at least from the employee point of view) doesn't have a lot of room to push back. It is negotiation, and you have the upper hand. Use it.
posted by Invoke at 4:26 PM on December 2, 2009

Here is how they came up with the original range offered in the job posting: http://www.opm.gov/oca/09tables/html/RUS.asp. This table clearly states that the GS-14 salary ranges from 95,010 to 123,519. This is the range from GS-14 Step 1 to GS-14 Step 10 for what is called 'The Rest of the United States' (ie. those areas not covered by another table).

Now, the number you are being offered (83,445) is from GS-14 Step 1 on this table: http://www.opm.gov/oca/09tables/html/gs.asp. This is the General Salary Table, upon which all the other locality tables are supposed to be based.

I don't have any information about how COLA vs. Locality Pay would work in Alaska. I'm just a federal employee who is covered by a specific locality pay table.
posted by LightMayo at 4:31 PM on December 2, 2009

Chiming in with a bit of trivia to possibly help illuminate the locality pay vs. COLA; the US Government does not consider Alaska to be part of CONUS (despite the fact that yes, Alaska is in North America).

So the allowances and so forth are similar to what you get when posted abroad. Is there any possibility that you can negotiate for post differential in addition to COLA?
posted by charmcityblues at 4:46 PM on December 2, 2009

the US Government does not consider Alaska to be part of CONUS (despite the fact that yes, Alaska is in North America).

That's because most people think of CONUS as "Continental United States", but it's really "Contiguous United States" AK has *always* been treated as Not CONUS, because it isn't.

You could also ask to start at a higher step, i.e., GS-14/05 rather than a GS-14/01. This would probably be much more palatable to an HR office.

Echoing this -- changing GS grades is impossible without reclassifying the job, but starting above /01 is explicitly allowed as a recruitment measure. I seriously doubt you'll get a /05, but I think you could get a /03.
posted by eriko at 6:58 PM on December 2, 2009

Actually, rereading this, I'd take it as a /01. Yes, the job was mis-listed, but the offer is GS14/01+23% COLA, which is $102K. It's not what you would have gotten if you were CONUS, but the listing is wrong -- you don't get a COLA in the US, you get paid on your locality table.

However, it would rock a bit more if you got slid up to an /03 or /04 at the start.
posted by eriko at 7:03 PM on December 2, 2009

Best answer: Not exactly an answer about how to fight it, but I'm betting the confusion started because it appears that Alaska is phasing in transitioning from COLA to locality pay over the next little while for federal employees, starting this month: Anchorage Daily News, http://media.aprn.org/2009/ann-20091008-02.MP3">Alaska Public Radio Network
posted by charmedimsure at 8:13 PM on December 2, 2009

(whoops, sorry about weird link formatting)
posted by charmedimsure at 8:14 PM on December 2, 2009

Best answer: Totally ask about the step part. Also, is this a job with a grade range? Example: I was kind of pissed when I got offered to start at GS-9 instead of GS-10 like I had expected, but it turned out that my offer was 9/5. After one year, I go up two steps and then up one grade to the step that doesn't involve a pay cut. So, 9/5 to 9/7, to 10/4. If I had been hired at 10/1 that wouldn't have worked out as well.

My job description, though, has a "full performance level" at GS-10. So once I make 10 in a few months, I can only go up steps from there until I move elsewhere in the organization with a higher grade range. If your job is a 14-15, or even just a 14, the step level to start at is significant. You advance a step every year to 4, then every 2 years to 7, then every 3 years to 10. Getting a couple of steps ahead can mean a lot of money in the long run.

To answer the question: there's probably not a lot you can do, since the person hiring you is not the same person as the HRO person deciding what your resume qualifies you for as far as grade. The HRO person has to go by guidelines like "BS degree, GS-12 authorized. Masters or X years experience in [key word], GS-13." There's no rule against asking how that was determined, though, in case your resume just didn't match certain "key words" when you do really have the skills.
posted by ctmf at 8:23 PM on December 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can ask to come in at a higher step. It'll be a lot easier to justify if you can show that you're currently making more than the step 1 rate they're offering you -- and they'll want to see multiple pay stubs. You need to convince the HR person you're talking to; they'll then turn around and ask the selecting official (i.e., the person who actually placed the job position) whether they'll approve the request for an increase over the minimum. Assuming they agree, there's an approval process to get some other people to sign off, but that should be a formality -- the selecting official agreeing is the key part.

Now, if you can't demonstrate that the 14/1 would be a pay cut versus where you are currently... you may be out of luck there.

Good luck.
posted by genehack at 7:19 PM on December 3, 2009

I negotiated a step increase within my grade for salary-matching purposes. It took a while longer because there was additional paperwork and approvals involved, but it went through fine. So I'm nth-ing the suggestions above that you look into this as a possible solution. Just remember that the person who is hiring you (and deciding to request recruitment bonuses, step increases, etc on your behalf) works in an entirely different department from HR and everyone has to go through channels. Be patient and double-check the numbers when you get official paperwork and it should probably work out fine.

On a side note, the feds have really good benefits. Depending where you are coming from, you may find yourself taking home more than you would have expected because of this.
posted by oblique red at 9:08 AM on December 4, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you all SO much. I know a lot about my particular career, but almost nothing about HR. I REALLY appreciate the guidance.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 6:26 PM on December 4, 2009

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