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Federal pay critics keep the debate alive

By Ed O'Keefe

Critics of the federal government's pay and benefits structure are keeping the debate alive, arguing that the Obama administration's defense of public sector wages is misguided and fails to address other issues.

Cato Institute budget analyst Tad DeHaven, responding to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry's comments to The Washington Post, says his colleagues and other critics are citing data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis instead of the Bureau of Labor Statistics because the BEA provides a comprehensive analysis of the financial impact of a worker's benefits package.

"Breaking the BEA data out across 72 industries shows that the federal civilian workforce as an industry ranks sixth in terms of average compensation," DeHaven blogs. "As one would expect, average compensation in the restaurant and bar industry is dead last, and financial services are at the very top."

He makes two other strong points: First, he cites BEA data that private sector employees are three times more likely to get laid off than federal workers. Second, federal employees are more than eight times less likely to quit than a private sector employee, according to BLS.

"We’ve argued that this indicates that federal employees recognize that the generous combination of wages, benefits and job security is hard to match in the private sector, so they stay put," DeHaven said.

A little more:

In the private sector, an employee’s compensation is a reflection of his or her value in the market. For instance, one may not like that LeBron James makes millions of dollars playing basketball, but that’s what the market for professional basketball players says his production is worth. It’s no different for a considerably lower-paid employee in the restaurant industry.
What’s a federal employee worth? How does one measure a government employee’s production? Government isn’t subject to market disciplines. It can’t go out of business. It has no competitor. It doesn’t need to earn a profit or even break even. It doesn’t receive its revenue from voluntary transactions – its revenues are obtained via taxation, which is paid by individuals under compulsion and force.

DeHaven and friends raise some good points -- and demonstrate why Berry admits it's difficult to establish an acceptable way to compare and contrast public and private sector pay and benefits.

Thoughts? The comments section awaits you.

By Ed O'Keefe  | August 18, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Workplace Issues  
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It isn't just wages, benefits and job security that keeps the Dilberts clinging to their federal cubs - the hours are a huge perk. The mellow workweek and low pressure of most federal jobs have essentially no parallel in the private sector (aka real world.)
The work from home crowd sits fat as do the millions of clock watchers who bolt for the door as early as 3 p.m. due to "early" start.
The hours, pay, benefits, pension and job lock of the feds has always been ridiculous, even without the recession by comparison. Let's get this straight - we employ people who can't be fired, are lightly challenged and extremely well paid.
Competent? Maybe. Most of these feds would croak in a competitive environment, and they know it.

Posted by: FloridaChick | August 18, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

"Federal and private employees are apples and oranges because the former is dependent on the latter for its existence. In the natural world, this relationship is call parasitism."

And a parasite immune to antibiotics or the big shoe.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 18, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

And take a look at those categories. Pay-for-attendance federal employees make more than people actually managing companies.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 18, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

This whole argument is such a joke and has most educated people laughing at the pure stupidity of it

The idea that most public workers make even close to what private sector workers make in the same industry is laughable. It really is that simple

Posted by: Bious | August 18, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Don't compare apples and oranges. Compare the wages paid to enlisted personnel in the military to the 6-figure salaries paid to mercenaries at Blackwater/Xe. Compare the salaries of IRS lawyers to the partners in the big corporate firms that defend off-shore tax shelters. Compare salaries of FDA scientists to scientists working for Big Pharma.

Don't compare the salary of an FBI agent to that of short-order cook. As would a conservative.

Posted by: Garak | August 18, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

Fed employees get paid sooo much that the President (Dems and Reps) annually sign an executive order preventing fed pay raises based upon fed/private sector pay parity formula.

Posted by: whittyone1 | August 18, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

First off, i am not rolling in money and benefits as some would have you beleive. Lets just say i make enough to live comfortably with enough left over to save for a couple of low budget(camping) vacations a year. Second, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to complete our work quickly and accurately. There is a huge backlog due to being horribly understaffed.
We are the punching bag for a lot of conservatives, but what they fail to mention is that we are people just like everyone else. We pay taxes and spend money to support the economy, just like everyone else. We are the behind the scenes people that help keep America functioning. And we do it for less money than some people would have you believe!

Posted by: rmk1122 | August 19, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

"And take a look at those categories. Pay-for-attendance federal employees make more than people actually managing companies."

What a ridiculous statement - unless "managing companies" includes managing a small business from your basement.

I have an advanced degree and work in Federal Financial Management. My neighbor who is in the same field (with a comparable educational background) worked for Freddie Mac until last year when he was let go. He used to make about 30% more than I do, but his position was, obviously, a riskier one.

Another friend (also in Financial Managment) who was recently laid off from Freddie is looking for a job and she won't even consider applying for Federal work because of the pay structure.

I wouldn't trade my job for either of their positions - because I love the programs I support and because I work with a very talented, well-educated group of people.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | August 19, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

More dreck from the anti-government crowd. No matter how much distinction and honest explanation is provided, it will never be enough, as these people fundamentally hate the mission of most Government agencies.

Briefly, many Government job types have no private sector counterparts. The use of averages is misleading because the Government has all but eliminated unskilled, semi-skilled, blue collar, and most pink collar work from its ranks (largely at the insistence of Republicans). The Federal Government is concentrated in extremely expensive labor markets. The Federal Government workforce (especially in Washington)is, by and large, a highly educated, highly experienced, graying workforce.

This workforce has been dramatically underpaid (even considering benefits) during the go-go years (1992-2000, 2005-2009) and is really not prone to shifting jobs at the end of their careers in a tight labor market. No surprise there. The Federal workforce has increased somewhat after 9/11, but is still well beneath post-WWI employment, despite the great grwoth of US population and incresaed mission and oversight of the workforce.

I think it's fair to say that most people in the Federal Government have traded the prospect of higher pay for more job security, but there is still a revolving door and many other factors at work as to why Government employees are not mobile. The fact that it is a graying workforce is perhaps the most dominant factor in that equation. However, the fact that many Government jobs have no private sector counterpart also plays a hand. You just can't get that many people to come for entry level salaries in Government and then stay the number of years it takes to get into the better pay ranks.

As to Governmment employees being clock watching loafers. Yes, there is some of that, but there is some of that in the private sector as well. I've worked many, many years in both sectors -- and I've seen strenuous and "lite" duty in both sectors in roughly equal proportions.

It is with great disappointment that I watch political functionaries whip up the anger of the unemployed and underemployed. It reminds me of Weimar Germany.

Posted by: finserra | August 19, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

finserra, please stop comparing the President to Hitler, you racist pig.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 19, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

I take great exception to Floridachick's comment re easy work week for federal employees who are "lightly challenged." Having worked as a civilian security professional for Uncle Sam for almost 20 years, my work week easily exceeds 50 hours, and involves frequent on-call requirements on weekends or at night. As to being "lightly challenged," how many times has Floridachick been deployed to war zones or put into other dangerous situations as many federal employees face, sometimes involuntarily? I don't complain because I get great satisfaction in knowning my job helps keep American and Floridachick safe at night...but please don't tell me I'm overpaid or sit around all day "living off the man."

Posted by: hickory91 | August 19, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

As a federal attorney, I don't make nearly enough to live off of. I have $90K in debt from state schools, rent a one bedroom at $1200 a month (below average in DC) and pay $600 a month in student loans. That leave me $700 to live off of for the month not including expenses for cell phone and other necessities.

And my work week varies from 40-60 hours, overtime which is not compensated. And I know my attorney counterparts in other agencies work the same amount above and beyond what we are compensated for.

Anyone arguing we are overpaid is a moron.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | August 20, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

There are several points that seem to have been forgotten in this debate.
First, roughly 2/3 of Federal employees' retirement benefits come from from shaky, not guaranteed, resources (i.e. Social Security and the stock market). This is forcing those who would have retired during the last few years to hang onto their jobs a little longer.
Secondly, just a few years ago most Feds had to compete for their jobs with the private sector. And even though the competition was skewed in favor of the latter, we still won the majority of those competitions. Unfortunately, at least in our agency, some of the admin folks who were brought in under the welfare to work program lost their competition/jobs along with mailroom folks who were mentally/physically disabled.
Clearly, there is a cost to society even when Feds are unseated from the workforce!

Posted by: ArmyVetMBA | August 20, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

We get paid a lot more than you because that is what the market dictates Federal Employees are worth.

Posted by: kfed | August 22, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

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