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The public-private pay gap, revisited

By Ed O'Keefe

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.

John Berry
OPM Director John Berry (The Post)

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."

What do you think?

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | September 15, 2010; 11:34 AM ET
Categories:  Workplace Issues  
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Comments

I hope he does look at the disparity between government employees and private sector wages. When I joined the government little did I realize that the old pension plan (CSRS) was eliminated, and everyone joining after 1984 was enrolled in FERS 401k. To be in the federal governemnt under FERS is not unlike working for a private company minus the pay. Sure there is more security with the fed, but the pay gap is wide and again no pension which is why most people got a federal job in the first place.

Posted by: nonag | September 15, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

The best way to end discussion about the obscene pay received by non-functioning and illiterate bureaucrats would be to stop reporting on it. OPM: stop reporting the numbers. Media: stop asking about it. Anything else is racist. Do you hate black people, Ed?

Posted by: jiji1 | September 15, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

jiji1: This is not about race but you have made it the subject. The government is a huge workforce (millions). Some deserve their pay and other don't. Some are white and some are black (enogh to make PG County, MD the most affluent majority black jurisdiction in the world). It's a complex topic and everyone has their biases. As a federal employee myself who used to work in the private sector, I will say that work/life balance is GOOD in the government. 40 hours is a full week. Sure some work more than that but they are not usually paid overtime. BTW, I'm typing this on my lunch hour!

Posted by: davidwstory | September 15, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

For people who work for the fed and feel the salaries and benefits aren't enough: hi, it's a choice. No one is forcing you to work for the fed, and I'm SURE there are many, many people who would gladly take your job if you'll just step aside.

Lots of people who work for the fed DO make way more than they would outside the government. But don't forget, all those taxes aren't going to only federal employees. The government is also shelling out tons to contractors.

Posted by: ahwilhelm | September 15, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Do you want to pay air traffic controllers, auditors, security specialists, intell analysts, special agents, scientists and engineers the average private sector wage?

I don't and sure don't to fly when air traffic controllers, FAA inspectors and others Feds earn what the slacker mal content at Macy's or the parts clerk at my Chevy dealer do?

Do you really want a govt filled with employees who are susceptible to bribery and coercion? Do you want even more Border patrol agents on the take?

My sibling worked for one of the big three accounting firms. He hated traveling 3 out four weeks a month. He took a $40k pay cut for a similar position in the Federal govt. He has more responsibility and supervises more folks. He is GS 14/10.

Also the critics of Fed pay do not take into account the cost of living in the DC area. I can buy a nice house in a nice suburb of Lexington, KY on 17 acres for $170K. Similar house in Clifton, VA is going to cost me $2million. Out in Clark County, VA at least $600k.

My firm has to pay a recent member of the USN or USA the equivalent of 2x the a GS12's starting salary to attract quality applicants in this area. Thats is starting salary with bennies paid health care, earning 8 hours annual leave and 4hrs of sick leave a pay period. That is an operator with 5 to 7 years of military experience. I pay my security analysts similar salaries and some can still earn more as exotic dancers.

Posted by: sheepherder | September 15, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

One real problem with federal pay is that there are many GS-12 and GS-13 without any supervisory responsibility. In the private sector people making $60,000+ generally (but not always) have some sort of management responsiblity.

Posted by: Jacknut | September 15, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

All too many of the articles I see do not explain the difference between the federal retirement system prior to 1984, the Civil Servant Retirement System (CSRS) and the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). Feds working all the way up to 25 years, including yours truly, are in this retirement system. It pays a little over 1% for every year of service. It ain't much people. I must rely on saving 18% of my salary every year and what ever there will be in the Social Security benefits for 2/3rds of my retirement money. That is scary.

So, please do not confuse federal, state and city government salaries and benefits. Criticize the CSRS for being so generous to federal workers but do not confuse this retirement system with FERS employees who have been working for the federal government for up to 25 years.

Another thing writers and publishers never seem to get straight is the difference between federal, state and city workers salaries and benefits. My neighbor's 25 year-old son across the street graduated from a police acacdemy and was offered a base salary of $93,000/yr plus over-time and all the bennies. He will be making the same salary I made as an engineer after 20 years of federal service.

My friend's firefighter husband retired on a disability at age 57 and is now working for the city again in a new department so he can be vested after 5 years and have another pension.

It makes me wonder why I busted my tail in college and lived in roach infested apartments so I could have a better life. No need it appears; just go to work for a city or state union job.

I see outrageous salaries and benefits paid to unions in the state of California that are eventually going to bankrupt this state, and our federal government will not be far behind. The union's are effectively holding this state's budget as ransom and they either give back very little or nothing at all (Bay Area Regional Transportation).

And finally, sure, there are some government people who do not earn their salary. But how is this any different than those workers who have to carry the lazy union and nonunion workers that do not want to share in the work load? My wife works for a union in a private company and comes home every night in chronic pain because numerous persons in her work group take advantage of the system.

Get it straight if you are going to write about federal salaries. And I know this is extremely difficult for writers but it would be so nice if they did not sensationalize everything about federal salaries just to make their articles more sellable to the public. Shame on them.

Posted by: wbraveheart | September 16, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

All too many of the articles I see do not explain the difference between the federal retirement system prior to 1984, the Civil Servant Retirement System (CSRS) and the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). Feds working all the way up to 25 years, including yours truly, are in this retirement system. It pays a little over 1% for every year of service. It ain't much people. I must rely on saving 18% of my salary every year and what ever there will be in the Social Security benefits for 2/3rds of my retirement money. That is scary.

So, please do not confuse federal, state and city government salaries and benefits. Criticize the CSRS for being so generous to federal workers but do not confuse this retirement system with FERS employees who have been working for the federal government for up to 25 years.

Another thing writers and publishers never seem to get straight is the difference between federal, state and city workers salaries and benefits. My neighbor's 25 year-old son across the street graduated from a police acacdemy and was offered a base salary of $93,000/yr plus over-time and all the bennies. He will be making the same salary I made as an engineer after 20 years of federal service.

My friend's firefighter husband retired on a disability at age 57 and is now working for the city again in a new department so he can be vested after 5 years and have another pension.

It makes me wonder why I busted my tail in college and lived in roach infested apartments so I could have a better life. No need it appears; just go to work for a city or state union job.

I see outrageous salaries and benefits paid to unions in the state of California that are eventually going to bankrupt this state, and our federal government will not be far behind. The union's are effectively holding this state's budget as ransom and they either give back very little or nothing at all (Bay Area Regional Transportation).

And finally, sure, there are some government people who do not earn their salary. But how is this any different than those workers who have to carry the lazy union and nonunion workers that do not want to share in the work load in other government systems or the private sector? My wife works for a union in a large private company. She comes home every night in chronic pain because numerous persons in her work group take advantage of the system.

Please get it straight for those who are going to write about federal salaries and benefits. And I know this is extremely difficult for writers, but it would be so nice if they did not sensationalize everything about federal salaries and benefits just to make their words more believable and to make their articles more sellable to the public.

Posted by: wbraveheart | September 16, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

One difference between private and government jobs I have observed, is that many goverment workers have little work or responsibility in spite of impressive job titles.
A private sector engineer for example, has to produce complex documents, assume a great deal of personal responsibility and work 50 hours a week just to stay employed.
Many Federal employees were I work fill organizational chart positions "just in case" a need comes up. Many Federal (and other public sector) employees have little work, projects or responsibility in spite of high salaries. Agencies could contract out for temporary expertise, but somtimes "staff up" with permanent employees instead. The answer isn't to cut pay, but to staff agencies appropriately to match actual workload.

Posted by: gr8jibe | September 16, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

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