Salary snafu means pay cuts for science agency staffers

By Robin Bravender | 10/02/2023 01:31 PM EDT

Treasury check

Blank checks on an idle press on May 8, 2008, at the Philadelphia Regional Financial Center, which disburses payments on behalf of federal agencies. Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Some employees at the National Science Foundation have been overpaid and will see their salaries cut next year, the agency’s management told them last week.

Management at the influential research agency informed staff on Thursday that some of its employees were earning six-figure salaries that exceed government pay limits and will be cut starting in January.

Those cuts could affect more than 300 employees whose current salaries exceed $195,000.

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The overpayments have been occurring since 2017, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan told employees last week in an email obtained by E&E News.

The agency’s then-general counsel advised that NSF could increase its pay caps for some “administratively determined” positions, meaning their pay isn’t determined by the “general schedule” pay scale that applies to most of the federal workforce.

But federal officials this year alerted NSF that some of its employees were earning salaries that exceeded legal limits.

The science agency’s pay came under scrutiny earlier this year when scientists chafed at NSF’s plan to give some staffers marginal pay increases that fall short of other federal workers’ raises. Following a staff uproar, NSF leadership scrapped the plan.

The pay dustup made headlines, which caught the attention of officials at the Office of Personnel Management, who contacted NSF to inform them that employees’ pay exceeded allowable limits. The Justice Department confirmed last week that “NSF does not have unique authority to set the pay bands outside of” Executive Level III limits set for senior agency staffers, Panchanathan told employees.

Management told NSF staff that about 315 staffers will be affected by pay adjustments next year, according to an agency employee granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press.

The Alexandria, Va.-based independent federal agency employs about 1,500 federal employees and 200 scientists from research institutions in temporary posts.

The impacted employees are those whose current pay exceeds $195,000, according to a document circulated to NSF staff.

Panchanathan said staff won’t be required to repay past overpayments and that no salary adjustments will be made until 2024.

If President Joe Biden’s request for a pay bump for federal employees in fiscal 2024 is enacted, Panchanathan wrote, “some adjustments will still need to be made.”

NSF recognizes “that this news causes hardships for NSF families impacted by the change,” Panchanathan wrote. “We deeply regret this outcome and are committed to evaluating any and all tools we have available for all employees.”