Is federal pay fair? That depends on how you count.
The debate about the fairness of federal employee pay reached a fever
pitch this week when House Republicans attempted to make their case
that feds are overcompensated.
At a March 9 hearing
held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Federal
Workforce Subcommittee, witnesses and lawmakers cited figures galore to
back their arguments about pay.
Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) went so far as to
hang a sign behind his chair that said federal employees on average
earned $101,628 in total compensation (including benefits) in 2010,
while the average private sector worker earned $50,462.
The purpose of the hearing was to determine whether feds are
compensated fairly, but, in the end, there was no clear answer. That’s
because it depends on who you’re asking and how they're counting.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry explained in his
hearing testimony that “raw comparisons of average pay between federal
and private sector employees mask important differences in the skill
levels, complexity of work, scope of responsibility, size of
organization, location, experience level, and special requirements, as
well as exposure to personal danger.”
Jobs with similar-seeming titles and duties are not necessarily
comparable, such as federally employed cooks who may earn more than
cooks in restaurants -- because they work for the Justice Department in
the dangerous environment of prisons, Berry said.
Berry also disputed a a claim that federal attorneys make more than
private sector attorneys. "In fact, while more than half of general
attorneys in the federal government earn less than $90,000 in their
first year of service, the median first year salary for comparable
attorneys in the private sector is $145,000," Berry said.
However, other witnesses said that research spanning the political
spectrum reveals federal employees are paid more than they would get
working for private businesses.
“The federal pay system unnecessary inflates federal pay,” said
witness James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the
Heritage Foundation. “My research shows that on average federal
employees earn hourly wages 22 percent higher than otherwise comparable
Sherk added that the inflation of federal pay is a consequence of the
General Schedule, which “primarily bases pay on time served rather than
performance. Federal employees who put in a minimal amount of effort
automatically earn within-grade increases in pay.”
Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
and another witness, similarly said “several decades of economic
research” reveals that federal employees do receive greater compensation
than those in the private sector.
The studies, summarized in the 1999 Handbook of Labor Economics,
generally find a salary premium of 10 to 20 percent over otherwise
similar private sector employees, he said.
Biggs noted that his analysis wasn’t intended to comment on feds’
productivity, the importance of their jobs, or the size of the
Berry, although he said that comparing the pay between feds and
private-sector employees even in the same occupations can be
misleading, concluded that what the government pays its workers is fair.
Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service
who also testified at the hearing, offered a compromise between the
opposing views, saying that some feds are underpaid, others overpaid and
still others are paid appropriately. (See a related Feb. 4 Workforce
It ultimately seems that findings on federal pay can reflect what a
person wants them to reflect. And because Republicans are in no rush to
align with the Obama administration, it’s likely that they will continue
to push their belief that feds are overpaid.
However, there will be always be differing views on the issue of
federal pay, making it near impossible to say with certainty who is
right in this discussion.
What do you think about the ongoing debate over federal pay? Are feds underpaid, overpaid or does it just depend on the job?
Posted by Alyah Khan on Mar 10, 2011 at 12:20 PM