Federal pay debate raises hackles again

Want to fuel a fire? Talk about federal salaries.

As it turns out, there are three topics people should avoid in polite conversation: politics, religion and federal salaries.

Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) violated etiquette — and stirred up a fierce online debate — when he took to the Senate floor Sept. 15 to rebut an article by Dennis Cauchon in USA Today that said federal employees on average receive twice the pay and benefits of people in the private sector.

According to USA Today, feds received an average total compensation in pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009, compared to only $61,051 for private-sector workers.

Kaufman pointed out that the civilian federal workforce is composed mostly of highly skilled and highly educated employees, who tend to earn higher salaries, while most lower-paying jobs are outsourced. “Our federal workforce has also become far better educated in the last 20 years, which also translates into greater earning power,” Kaufman said, as reported by Federal Daily, a sister publication of Federal Computer Week.

When the Federal Daily article appeared on FCW.com, readers got into a heated conversation about the merits of the USA Today article and Kaufman’s response. Many feds were grateful for the senator’s willingness to stand up for them. “Thank you, Sen. Kaufman!” one fed wrote.

(Click here to read all the comments.)

Numerous readers argued that it is difficult to compare salaries because federal job titles often understate the nature of the work. One reader, named Rick, used his own job as an example. “My job title is analyst, but this does not describe all my responsibilities,” he said. “For example, I do program analysis, finance and budgets, building inspections, training, emergency management, physical security and information technology, among others. What job at what level in the private sector would have [all] these responsibilities in one role?”

More to the point, feds who have moved to the private sector say they quickly discovered the full extent of the pay disparity.

“When I retired from the Marine Corps, with 10 years of IT experience, I accepted a position as an IT contractor at a federal agency and nearly doubled my salary,” one reader said. “During my five years as a contractor, my pay increased $28,000. Five years later, when I accepted an identical position at another government agency, as a government worker, I took a $16,000 pay cut.”

But not everyone was buying Kaufman’s argument. For example, several readers pointed out that the statistics fail to include health and retirement benefits, time off and other perks, all of which add up to serious money.

The Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute, both Washington-based think tanks, have done their own studies that factor in more variables, notes a reader named Jeremiah. “The results are unambiguous and clear: There is a significant and growing pay gap favoring the feds over the ‘great unwashed’ masses outside the charmed federal circle,” Jeremiah said. “The senator is obviously no statistical analyst and is merely the mouthpiece for federal unions and other usual suspects who hope to obfuscate the issue.”

As this issue went to press, the debate was still raging, with readers arguing about pay levels, job performance and even politics. Thankfully, no one has touched on religion.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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