No more whining

For a number of years, I was one of those who complained that federal employee pay is falling further and further behind private-sector pay. But time has made me change my tune.

The American Federation of Government Employees' online calculator allows federal employees to determine what their annual salary would be if the 1990 Federal Employee Pay Comparability Act had been fully implemented. Predictably, the calculator shows that the pay gap between federal employees and their private-sector counterparts is growing.

And predictably, AFGE is complaining bitterly about this. But I don't feel the same way.

The United States has one of the most vibrant economies in the world, and employees are constantly on the move to find jobs that pay more or are more satisfying or both. If a new opportunity presents itself clear across the country, many workers are willing to uproot themselves and follow the money. That's the nature of our free-market economy.

So why do feds seem incapable of shopping for the best job available? Why did they need congressional help? I know I will catch some flak for this, but I think it's time for AFGE to stop whining.

Private-sector employees who don't like their boss, their job or their pay are free to seek something better, and they do. What makes feds different? At one time, when most feds were under the Civil Service Retirement System, feds leaving government service often sacrificed a lot of retirement benefits. CSRS heavily penalized those who left government service — their pension benefits weren't portable.

But now, most feds are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System. You can take your Thrift Savings Plan money with you, as well as your Social Security credits. And at age 62, you're entitled to a deferred annuity from FERS for the contributions you made to FERS that were earmarked for this purpose.

In today's environment, feds who feel they're not being paid enough have no reason not to look for a job in the private sector. It's true that some government jobs, being highly specialized, have no comparable counterparts in the private sector. Most feds in this situation have to take a pay cut and start over in the private sector.

I can empathize with feds in this situation. But I'm not sure that the answer is to ask Congress for a bailout or a raise.

I think we should let the marketplace resolve this problem. If feds really want to leave government because their pay isn't good, we should let them leave for greener pastures. A high turnover rate among government employees will send a much stronger signal to Congress than the one being sent by the AFGE. I know many of you will disagree with my position and I invite you to write and correct me if I'm wrong.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at


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