Breaking the big taboo: How much do you make?

Your salary typically isn't a topic of polite conversation

Let's say you and I are at a party. We ask the typical questions: "Where are you from?" "What do you do?" "How much do you make?"

Oh, wait. We're not supposed to ask that last question in polite company.

So why are we assuming that people deserve to know that kind of information about public employees?

In late July, government salaries became big news when the Los Angeles Times reported on the exorbitant salaries of officials in Bell, Calif. I posted a blog on GovLoop titled “The Rudest Question: 'How Much Do You Make?'” The post touched a nerve, generating more than 50 comments. Here are some of them.

“Personally, as long as everyone's salary is transparent, sure, I'm game. But if I'm working alongside a contractor…how come I can't ask how much the contractor next to me is making?”
Nichole Henley, management and program analyst, Navy Department

“I'm not sure why this question is so much more taboo than, ‘What grade are you?’ Maybe it's just because I'm in HR, but once I figure out the grade, I could eyeball the salary.”
David Uejio, special assistant to the director of the National Institutes of Health's Office of Human Resources

Most people agreed that it’s fair for government salaries to be public, but it still makes them uncomfortable.

Two months later, the issue of government pay continues to spark spirited discussion. Just last week, Doris Tirone, a human resources specialist at the Agriculture Department’s Rural Development service, posted a short blog titled “Mandatory Unpaid Leave Proposed for Feds.” It highlights a bill (H.R. 6134) introduced by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) that proposes cutting $5.5 billion from the federal budget by requiring two weeks of mandatory unpaid leave for federal employees so that “federal workers are not sheltered from the realities of life in today’s economy."

Reactions were mixed.

“Welcome to local government's world. Last year, we were mandated to take about nine unpaid days here at my municipality. They could have just decided to cut our pay without the days off, so I was happy.”
Kristy Fifelski, Web services manager, Reno, Nev.

"If you want to cut the federal budget, why not work to minimize the perverse incentives that encourage every office to dump/hide/spend money at the end of the fiscal year regardless of need? Punitive action against government employees won't improve the effectiveness of our work or lead us to sustainable governance.”
Anna Abbey, conflict resolution specialist, Environmental Protection Agency

“Freak-show outrageous! Coffman and his cronies need to bite that bullet for themselves if they want to show the public that the government ‘feels their pain’!”
Dean Johnson, network administrator, Air Force

Then there’s the solution proposed by Sterling Whitehead, a contract specialist at the Navy, who says, “Let’s Work on Columbus Day.” Whitehead explains: “The truth is we serve the public, and there's a popular perception that we are insulated from the Great Recession. Eliminating Columbus Day…doesn’t save $5.5 billion by furloughing most federal workers for two weeks. However, it shows the public that we're making sacrifices, too.”

Personally, I think we should just stop going to parties.


About the Author

Andy Krzmarzick is the community manager for GovLoop, a social network for people in and around government.

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Reader comments

Wed, Oct 20, 2010 RayW

Reading the anonymous post of Mon, Oct 18, 2010, I think you ought to go to the labor relations board. Even salaried workers are required to get a certain number of breaks in an eight hour day (nine hours here). But unless you work in a sweat shop with a whip wielding slave master watching you from the time you walk in until you leave (which contradicts the theory that gov workers do not work), I have not seen a contractor that did not take a few minutes here and there to talk about non-work related items. Unless you are doing robot work, you need the breaks just to refresh your mental processes.

And yes, you do not get all those other days off like we do, but in all the real life jobs I have worked at, I did not either. But I did have and our contractors here still have the Christmas and new year's 10-12 days off that we as Gov workers do not get, unless we take leave for most of them.

Yes, I realize that there are certain contractors that by virtual of pay of skill level do not have any leave at all, but those are rare compared to the ones that have benefits, except in real life jobs as I found out during some unemployment time in the 90's.

Wed, Oct 20, 2010

I don't care who knows how much I make, as long as the don't assume a more expensive Christmas gift.

Mon, Oct 18, 2010

Government contractors generally are only paid when they work. A forced "furlough" is NOT going to accomplish anything. Yes, I work for one of the three contractors mentioned. And I am an exempt employee. So yes, I generally put in more hours than the 40 hours per week that my "civilian" counterparts put in, for NO additional pay. And I don't get Columbus Day, Veteran's Day, MLK Day, and President's Day off unless I take vacation. Nor do I get coffee breaks or CFC "event" hours (my charitable time is truly charitable) or "blood leave" or the "last hour" of admin leave before every three day weekend. I think our federal managers should consider these "added benefits" being eliminated before considering furloughs - THAT would save the government money!

Thu, Oct 14, 2010

Amen to the CFC comment below.I truly believe an honest accounting of all the 'on the clock' hours devoted to this were added up, it would approach what is collected in donations. But it gives too many people a Warm Fuzzy Feeling, and 'community involvement' is too big a performance criteria for command and management, for it to ever change. What it really amounts to is a back-door appropriation from the taxpayers.

Thu, Oct 14, 2010 RT

In our agency the senior managers encourage wasting govt paid time on events that cost $5500 to $7500 in govt employee time to raise $200-$300 for CFC. The employees won't let go of anything for charity unless the agency gives them lots of time to 'goof off' such as playing mini-golf or regular golf on government time. Our agency like some other agencies just have too many people or very few with the skills required to responsible management because advancement is on the 'go with the flow' buddy system. Not all agencies are like this but there are enough that there really is major waste that could be cleaned up to improve government operations. The Inspector General Act should have made IGs better able to really fight fraud, waste and abuse but they have been housepets for too long to expect them to howl at the moon now.

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