The federal pay debate begins anew
Reporters and fiscally conservative think tanks are at it again, raising concerns about federal pay and benefits.
"More federal workers' pay tops $150,000" said the headline in Wednesday's USA Today, trumpeting a review of government statistics that found the number of federal workers earning more than $150,000 has climbed tenfold in the past five years and doubled since the start of the Obama administration.
"It's stunning when you see what's happened to federal compensation," Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told the paper. "Every metric shows we're heading in the wrong direction." Chaffetz is the ranking Republican on the House subcommitee on the federal workforce and may lead the panel in the new Congress. He wants a pay freeze for federal employees and would like to give non-security workers a 10 percent pay cut.
That's because just 3 percent of federal employees earn more than $150,000, according to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry -- a statistic he noted is missing in USA Today's report.
"Most federal employees are middle-class Americans," Berry said. "The clear majority of high earners are highly specialized experts in their fields and many of them hold positions where lives are on the line. These include doctors who are treating our wounded veterans, scientists who are researching cures for diseases, and counterterrorism experts who are protecting the American people every day. And, in almost all cases, they earn less than their counterparts in the private sector."
Union leaders also shot back, noting that many top earners are medical professionals caring for military veterans.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (and tapped this week to serve on the Federal Salary Council) cited a study by the Medical Group Management Association that found median physician compensation rates in 2009 ranged from just under $200,000 for primary care physicians to $350,000 for specialty care physicians -- figures much higher than the compensation for federal doctors.
John Gage, president of the largest federal union, the American Federation of Government Employees, noted that Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has said the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to keep its competitive pay and benefits on par with the private sector in order to attract quality doctors and nurses.
"The federal government has been able to create a highly-skilled, dedicated workforce in spite of the fact that it pays modest salaries," Gage said. "Attacking the pay of federal employees is a cheap political shot that does nothing to address any real or perceived problems and does a great disservice to the American public."
USA Today's use of the $150,000 figure is questionable, because it fails to take into account regular pay raises that will bring more and more people above it each year. And depending on locality pay in some parts of the country, long-time federal workers on the general schedule pay scale earn more than that amount, meaning the figure is not an indicator of the trend in employment of top-level feds.
It also seems odd that the paper is surprised that the biggest pay hikes are going to employees who have been with the government for 15 to 24 years. Well, duh: Longer-serving employees have more experience and it seems perfectly logical that longtime workers at any organization might earn bigger raises, especially if they're in highly-specialized fields.
A better indicator of rising federal pay might be to add up all the people who are in pay systems above the general schedule -- a group including members of the Senior Executive Service, senior political officials, doctors, administrative law judges and other highly specialized workers.
Researcher Eric Yoder contributed to this report.
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| November 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Eye Opener
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