The federal pay debate: To be continued

The discussion about federal pay never seems to end, with people arguing that feds are either underpaid or overcompensated. But couldn’t the debate be settled once and for all by looking at actual salary data?

It’s not as simple as it seems. Speakers at an event sponsored by the Coalition for Effective Change in June highlighted how the seemingly easy task of determining whether feds are paid more, less or the same as their industry counterparts is fraught with challenges because of the different methodologies used.

Rex Facer, a member of the Federal Salary Council and an associate professor at Brigham Young University, said the council’s research and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that feds are undercompensated on average between 30 percent and 40 percent. However, Joseph Kile, assistant director of the Microeconomic Studies Division at the Congressional Budget Office, disagreed, saying CBO estimates indicate that feds, in general, make roughly 2 percent more than private-sector employees.

The disparities sparked a discussion among FCW readers who commented on the story and on a follow-up post on the “Management Watch” blog. The majority said feds are underpaid and stressed how even decades of experience do little to bump up salaries.

“Federal employees never have and never will make as much as the private sector — that’s just the nature of the beast,” reader David said. “We have always been 15 to 25 percent behind on all of the wage surveys I have read for the localities I have worked in over the years. Unfortunately, that gap has increased even further due to the [pay] freeze.”

A reader posting under the name Spacedude said that even with years of know-how, he was still earning less than his private-sector colleagues. “I am near the upper end of the government pay scale, and after several decades of being a federal employee, I can truthfully say my counterparts in industry earn more,” he said.

Reader Carol echoed those sentiments, saying that despite her three decades as a fed, she made far less money than her industry peers. “I am a GS-11 in the IT field and earn at least $20,000 less a year than my counterpart on the outside with the same certification,” she wrote.

Another reader who has worked in both sectors shared how a transition from industry to government resulted in a significant salary decrease. “I worked in an IT job in St. Louis as a team leader,” Atlanta wrote. “I moved to a GS-13 office chief. Other than increasing my supervisory responsibilities, the work was very similar. I took a $14,000-a-year pay cut. I made the move after [the 2001 terrorist attacks], and I wanted to help my country.”

But lower government salaries often come with attractive benefit packages that are unheard of in the private sector. Agnes, whose industry career spanned 15 years, recently joined the government and noted that the public sector “has good benefits long term, good vacation time if accumulated.”

Reader Paul acknowledged the great benefits he has as a fed but said his move to the public sector came at a price that went beyond a pay cut. “With all the added benefits, I figure I came out slightly ahead but realized later that I also gave up much chance for career progression,” he wrote. “Now that I'm a fed, I'm trapped in one job, in one area, and have no flexibility and no promotion options. I'm having to look at getting a third degree just to hope I can see some movement.”

Ultimately, people choose to work where they can receive maximum compensation, and money doesn’t always come out on top, reader John said. “Obviously, the federal government offers them a better total package than they think they can get in the private sector,” he wrote. “Compensation includes pay, health care benefits, holidays and vacation, sick leave, retirement plans, and a stable work environment — not just a salary.”

The 2014 Federal 100

Get to know the 100 women and men honored this year for going above and beyond in federal IT.

Reader comments

Tue, Jul 17, 2012 Joe

Botom line: professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.) would be much better off in the private sector. Admin such as secretaries, admin officers, etc., make WAY too much for their quality of work in the govt. If you want a creeer as a secretary or admin officer, the govt will pay you very well for life.

Mon, Jul 16, 2012

In the government an employee's value and quality is determined their skin color, gender and orientation. In some agencies Vets are actually valued equally with the politically correct EEO types. Political correctness and empire building determines the awards bonuses and promotions which management gets, not actually getting the job done

Mon, Jul 9, 2012 Mike

I agree with most of the comments related to this article. As one person noted, we're in an evolving environment therefore evaluation and scrutiny is required, however many federal positions are directly related to the military and the overall safety/security of our nation. This means you should not necessarily compare them to the private civilian sector. Note: per the U.S. Census Bureau, from 1994-2010 federal employees have made up less than .45 percent of the Nation's workforce (excluding uniformed military, postal and intelligence service). When there's a National burden, the entire 'Nation' should share it. I can't stand seeing anyone get paid for doing nothing (or never having contributed in a positive manner). I also can't stand tax evaders. Scrutiny should be applied in these areas. I bust my _ _ _ as it is...worn, beat-down...and then dealing with those who try to hammer less than .45 percent of the nation (repeatedly). I'll pay my part...I'll pay more taxes, but we all need to help. Freedom isn't free.

Mon, Jul 9, 2012 CSRS Recepient

It used to be that if you got into a career field, you would never get rich but you could pay your bills, have a decent house and be O.K. The main benefit was decent (not great benefits), a few occasional in-grades, COLA and no lay offs. That world no longer exists. I've had offers at 50% pay increases to work as a contractor doing the same thing (or less) than I'm doing now. Working as a contractor I can pay off my house in 5 years.So why work for the feds now?

Mon, Jul 9, 2012

This debate beteween public and private sector pay should never end because pay, including the full benefits package, is not a constant - especially in the private sector. With a bad economy the GOV will usually look very good and in a booming economy the private sector will usualy look very good. Then you have different policies as the elected officials rotate through the government and make their input. The situation is constantly in flux and, therefore, should be constantly monitored and debated. This allows for the opportunity to make necessary changes due to the changing conditions that evolve with time. Trying to shut down the debate is the worst thing people can do.

Show All Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above