When do federal employees deserve hazard pay?

| Apr 16, 2020 | Employee Rights

There are many ways in which federal jobs differ from those in the private sector. Some of these differences may come to light when people start talking about which workers are “essential.” When non-essential workers take one path, you and other “essential” federal employees must often take another.

The result is that you may find yourself forced to work in hazardous conditions. These conditions may go far above and beyond anything in your job description. At such times, you may wonder if you’re entitled to hazard pay.

Does your job require you to perform hazardous work?

The issue of hazard pay was recently brought to the fore by a lawsuit filed against several agencies. As the employees and their union noted, they believed they were entitled to a 25% pay increase for the hazardous work they were asked to perform while exposed to a “virulent biological” agent.

Unlike many private sector employees, federal employees often have a legal right to hazard pay. This right is established by 5 U.S.C. 5545(d), which says the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) “shall” set pay schedules for “duty involving any unusual physical hardship or hazard.” Notably, as the OPM states on its website, this only applies to certain workers. They must:

  • Be covered by chapter 51 (Classification)
  • Be covered by subchapter III of chapter 53 (General Schedule Pay Rates)
  • Perform work that meets the requirements of 5 CFR 550.904

And what are those requirements? You need the hazard to fall outside of your standard job duties. And you need it to appear among the list of hazards that include:

  • Certain risks presented by hazardous weather or terrain
  • Physiological hazards such as pressure chambers, altitude simulators and centrifuges
  • Missile tests
  • Firefighting
  • The construction and inspection of tunnels
  • Exposure to hazardous materials such as toxic chemicals and microscopic organisms that may cause disease or death

When you meet these standards, you may deserve hazard pay as a matter of law. But there are exceptions.

Notable exceptions

The OPM notes that employees aren’t generally eligible for hazard pay if their agencies have already factored the hazards into their standard pay. However, there are exceptions even to this exception. Agencies may choose to reward hazard pay to such employees if the hazards:

  • Have changed significantly from the expectations factored into the job
  • Cannot be mitigated by the skills and knowledge the employees are expected to bring to their job

Of course, getting your mandated hazard pay is one thing. Asking your agency to recognize that the hazards you’re facing are unusual is entirely another.

Hazard pay can be confusing

As part of your job, you may be asked to take some risks and endure some hardships. But it’s not always easy to tell when those risks or hardships may qualify you for hazard pay. The list of qualifying hazards is long, strangely specific at some points and vague in others. There are exceptions, and there are exceptions to the exceptions.

If you suspect your work may qualify you for hazard pay, you may wish to contact an attorney experienced with federal employment law. Once you’re certain you qualify, you’ll want your agency to understand, as well.

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