The public-private pay gap, revisited
Updated 2:03 p.m. ET
John Berry, the government's personnel chief, never shies away from a microphone or reporter's notebook and didn't disappoint Tuesday when asked once again about the ongoing debate regarding pay and benefits earned by federal workers.
You'll recall that Berry picked a fight on the issue this summer with Republican lawmakers, the Cato Institute, USA Today and others, sticking up for the rank and file with an emotional defense. The fight started last December when USA Today reported that the number of feds earning six-figure salaries has exploded during the recession despite private-sector job losses.
In light of those reports, federal officials are considering an overhaul of how the government tracks and compares public and private sector pay.
"I don't want to get ahead of myself, it may be no changes are needed," he said Tuesday after meeting with agency personnel officials. But he cautioned that the current pay debate is nothing new.
"[The Heritage Foundation] and Cato [Institute], they could have published the same thing they published 25 years ago," he said. "Data can be manipulated to make whatever point you want to make."
Heritage suggests that the government could save $47 billion in fiscal 2011 by reducing "federal compensation to private-sector rates" (that it doesn't provide).
"The taxes that fund this generous pay hurt the economy," argues Heritage analyst James Sherk.
It's that kind of analysis that Berry disputes: "I think those that look at this with a scientific approach and a careful approach, and compare like jobs, apples to apples, do not reach the conclusions that have been in the media of late," he said. And Berry believes higher salaries are needed to attract top recruits that might instead consider careers with Fortune 500 companies.
But Cato's Chris Edwards, a frequent federal spending critics, notes that several departments stock themselves with staffers for less-specialized professions, including press officers.
"Apparently, it isn't just rocket scientists that are earning high levels of federal compensation, it is also workers in many run-of-the-mill bureaucratic jobs," Edwards wrote.
Ah, but wait. There's a legislative wrinkle, too. Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) -- a frequent defender of federal workers -- on Wednesday once again defended the federal pay scale, noting that most public-private pay comparisons fail to acknowledge that the private sector workforce is 52 times larger than the federal sector.
"The job categories in the private and public sectors are simply not comparable," he said. More:
One great example is "broadcast technicians." According to the USA Today, "broadcast technicians" in the federal government earn an average of $132,410 a year, while those in the private sector earn only $88,241. However, what the USA Today doesn't tell its readers is that, according to the very same data set they used, there are only 110 broadcast technicians working in the entire federal government. In the entire national workforce, according to the same data, there are 33,550 broadcast technicians. This means that broadcast technicians in the federal government represent three-tenths of one percent of the total. One can hardly compare them, especially since, according to the OPM, 99% of the broadcast technicians in the federal government work for the Broadcasting Board of Governors here in Washington. I know very well from personal experience that BBG technicians require much more experience and education than the average private sector broadcast technician.
(Kaufman once served on the BBG board.)
"This fight I expect will continue forward. I don't expect any sort of Kumbaya moment where suddenly this 25-year battle is going to be drawn to conclusion," Berry said. "I think we might have a better shot at Secretary Clinton succeeding in the Middle East."
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