YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A quick show of the hands of about 1,000 sailors gathered with the Navy’s top enlisted man indicated that morale is good but needs improvement at a time when next year’s budget proposals would effectively erode servicemembers’ purchasing power.
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens spoke with sailors for about an hour Wednesday, peppering his speech with impromptu polls on quality-of-life and professional issues facing the rank and file.
When Stevens asked them to evaluate morale and gave them options of poor, good, excellent and outstanding, about 80 percent of the room chose the bottom two responses, with “good” receiving a majority of the hands.
Only one sailor rose his hand for “outstanding.”
The vast majority of the Navy’s enlisted force rates morale as “good” or better, Stevens said to Stars and Stripes following the all-hands meeting.
“What ‘good’ to me says is that there’s certainly room for improvement,” Stevens said. “But by and large, our force is pretty satisfied with the morale.”
It remains to be seen whether morale will stay at current levels if proposals Congress passes a 2015 Defense budget that would limit pay raises and increase servicemember rates for health care, housing and groceries.
“The increases in our quality of life have been improving at a pace that is unsustainable,” Stevens told sailors. “It’s been greater than our cost of living. They tell us that if we don’t level out … we’re going to exceed our capability to provide the quality of work that we do.
“I’m not excited about it either,” Stevens added. “But I’m not here to excite you about it.”
Another quick show of hands indicated that most sailors in the room believed their compensation packages were still better than those received by their friends in the private sector.
Stevens repeated several times that the compensation proposals are a “slowing of growth,” as opposed to cuts.
Stevens is correct in terms of nominal wages.
In real wages — wages adjusted for inflation — the 1 percent increase in proposed military salaries for 2015 is projected to be a cut. Inflation as calculated by the U.S. consumer price index currently stands at 1.5 percent.
Meanwhile, private-sector wage growth is expected to rise to 2.1 percent over last year, according to Bloomberg BNA’s projections.
Defense Department civilians and other federal workers experienced cuts in their real wages for the past four years – three of which saw no salary increase, followed by a 1 percent increase this year.
Stevens conceded that buying power would also be reduced under 2015 budget proposals, which still face potential changes before being voted on by Congress.
They include a rollback of housing allowances that would eventually leave military families paying about 5 percent of their own housing; an increase in Tricare health care fees; and increases in domestic commissary prices due to a $1 billion proposed cut in funding over the next three years.
The Military Officer Association of America estimates that the proposals will reduce spending power for an E-5 with 10 years of service and a family of four by about $5,000, and cost an O-3 with the same family and service length about $5,900.