Obama administration clashes with UN over budget-busting employee salaries

The Obama administration on Friday called on the United Nations to provide “greater clarification” for how it calculates employee salaries that are significantly higher than those paid by the federal government.

The comments come in response to a U.S. audit that faulted the U.N. for allegedly failing to “clearly state” how it calculates the salaries for the more than 12,000 professional-level employees of the U.N. Secretariat, which is headquartered in New York. 

The member states have agreed to pay staffers between 110 percent and 120 percent of U.S. federal salaries, but the Government Accountability Office raised concerns with the U.N.'s assumptions.

“According to long-standing principles, U.N. compensation should be reasonably comparable to compensation for U.S. federal civil servants,” Joseph Torsella, the U.S. representative to the U.N. for management and reform, said in a statement. 

“We therefore welcome GAO’s recommendation to work with other member states to seek greater clarification of how the U.N. compares its salaries to salaries for U.S. federal civil servants.

“We further welcome the news that a forthcoming GAO report may provide a clear comparison of the entire package of salaries, benefits and allowances given to U.N. staff and U.S. federal civil servants. Having a clear comparison between these packages will help us significantly in our mission of promoting fiscal sustainability at the U.N.”

The GAO audit said that a “lack of clarity” in the assumptions the U.N. uses to compare its salaries to those of federal civil servants makes it difficult for member states to “provide oversight,” “consider alternatives” and “decide whether the [International Civil Service Commission]'s recommendations are consistent with the goal of managing the U.N. budget as effectively as possible.”

The report found that U.N. salaries officially increased from 113.3 percent of U.S. federal salaries in 2010 to 116.9 percent in 2012, still below the 120 percent threshold that could trigger a salary freeze. 

However, using different assumptions – such as taking into account cost-of-labor adjustments that the federal government uses when comparing New York to Washington, D.C. — the GAO said salaries jumped to 126.7 percent of U.S. workers' pay.

“Our recommendation is that State and the U.S. Mission to the U.N. should work with other member states to make sure that they can get the information they need for effective oversight of ICSC’s process,” the GAO report concluded.

The U.N. defends its practice of paying its employees more than federal workers by pointing to a lack of job security and limited options for promotion at the U.N., as well as the increased costs of living incurred by people who work in a foreign country. 

In its response to the GAO audit, the U.N. defended the transparency of its process and ruled out shifting to cost-of-labor instead of cost-of-living adjustments when calculating U.N. salaries.

“The U.N. salary system of necessity must equalize the purchasing power of salaries across the world in order to maintain the principle of equal pay for work of equal value,” said Kingston Rhodes, the chairman of the UN's International Civil Service Commission.

The U.N., he said, is “confident that our methodology is transparent and has been both fully described and fully explained.”

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