Contractor Life: What’s it like working in Iraq?
By Ed O'Keefe — Interested in working for the U.S. government in Iraq? Though the dangers are obvious, the pay and perks can be pretty good.
Federal employees and contractors serving here face an almost-daily barrage of rocket attacks, the inability to travel freely, scorching hot temperatures and other cultural and linguistic limitations. But workers with the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and other federal agencies keep on coming, especially as the U.S. presence here becomes more of a civilian affair.
Despite the violence, harsh temperatures and separation from family, serving the U.S. government in a war zone often guarantees promotions and ultimately can lead to assignments at the most coveted diplomatic outposts, according to current and former officials who’ve served time in Iraq.
So how much can a typical federal worker in Iraq anticipate earning?
Let’s use a current State Department job posting as an example: Foggy Bottom is seeking a new “monitoring and evaluation advisor” to oversee Iraq-based projects of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs – the entity responsible for conducting high-level Iraqi police training (more on this in the coming weeks).
For our purposes, let’s say the eventual job winner (we’ll call him “Frank the Foreign Service Officer”) earns an annual salary of $100,000 plus traditional federal benefits (annual leave, sick leave, federal health and life insurance plans, 10 paid federal holidays and normal vacation accrual.)
Frank’s Iraq assignment includes danger pay and “post differential pay” (the global equivalent of locality pay), each equaling 35 percent of his base salary. This means Frank will earn an additional $70,000 for working in Iraq. ($100,000 base salary x .70 = $70,000 more.)
If Frank speaks Arabic, he can also earn a prorated language credit, ranging from 5 to 15 percent of base pay depending on his level of skill. ($100,000 x .15 = $15,000 more.)
Though the compensation can add up fast, no pay package in Iraq this year will exceed $227,300 annually, according to State Department rules.
Once hired, Frank is expected to work in Iraq for one year and isn’t officially guaranteed two-day weekends. (After all, diplomacy doesn’t stop on Saturdays and Sundays.) To make up for seven-day work weeks, less experienced Foreign Service officers earn overtime pay for working nights, holidays and Sundays, while senior FSOs earn a 20 percent pay bump over the course of the year (based on the assumption that they work at least 55 hours per week).
Once he’s ready to recharge his batteries, Frank will be eligible for “rest and recuperation breaks” back in the U.S., or “regional rest breaks” in other Middle Eastern countries.
Each “R&R” lasts 22 days, including travel to and from Baghdad (which the State Department pays for.) Depending on Frank’s orders, he might be required to visit headquarters in Washington during an R&R.
“RRBs” last for seven days, including travel time. The State Department pays for round-trip air travel to Amman or Kuwait, but Frank will have to pay to get to his final Mideast destination. (The Eye heartily recommends going north to Istanbul.)
Over the course of his year-long assignment, Frank can take either three “R&Rs” or a combination of two “R&Rs” and three “RRBs.”
Though the pay and benefits for working in Iraq seem nice, remember that unlike other diplomatic assignments, Frank’s family cannot come with him. And while the embassy in London or the consulate in Osaka might be located near choice pubs and hibachi tables, most meals in Baghdad come from the embassy cafeteria, the embassy coffee shop, or Subway and Pizza Hut.
Still, working in Iraq and Afghanistan comes with long-term career benefits. Employees who apply early enough in the process can sign up for “linked assignments” that require one year of service in a war zone followed by a guaranteed posting in the city of their choice.
So if Frank is willing to do time in Baghdad, his dream assignment in Rome could conceivably become a reality.
The scenario above is just one example of what Americans working in a war zone might expect. By no means will all of the State Department and USAID workers, contractors and private security guards assigned to Iraq in the coming months be paid the same way.
And, of course, no payment or perk could match the sacrifice made by workers who choose to serve in harm’s way and never make it home.
By Ed O'Keefe of the Washington Post