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The federal pay debate begins anew

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

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.

The newspaper's report is part of a series of reports on federal compensation and benefits that continues to earn the ire of administration officials and federal worker unions.

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.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

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By Ed O'Keefe  | November 11, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener  
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How many of the highest paid are political appointees? Or re-hired 'senior mentors'? Do they count? There is probably deadwood at the top that can be cleaned out, but clear-cutting the total workforce isn't the answer.

How about moving more federal workers out of the high cost DC area? Much of the work today is via computer/e-mail so we could set up operations in Utah, Florida, Colorado or many states - at a much cheaper cost to taxpayer and probably a better QOL for employees.

Appreciate your thoughts - Happy Veterans Day

Posted by: TomKski | November 11, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

I'm a DC federal attorney and I make 1/3rd of what my private sector 3rd year attorneys make.

I live paycheck to paycheck because of student loans and the high cost of living in and around DC. No car. One bedroom apartment. And paycheck to paycheck.

We are underpaid.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | November 11, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Does anyone find it hilarious that there are these right-wing articles discussing how highly paid public workers are yet nobody can actually find any of these highly-paid people and every public employee who posts here knows nobody in the private field that makes less then them?

Posted by: Bious | November 11, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

I am a federal employee with an advanced degree and more than 20 years of service. I make a lot less than the upper end figure quoted in the article. As anyone with access to the Internet and a federal pay schedule can tell you the figures cited are beyond the upper end of the GG range. According to the OPM the current 15-10 salary (the upper end of the federal pay range that the majority of federal employees never in their wildest dreams approach) is $129, 517. I went back and looked at my salary progression over a the past five years. According to my math the average yearly increase over the 5 year period amounts to approximately 3%. It is true that clerks, waiters, and others in the retail and service industry have not enjoyed anything close to a 3% increase over five years. Some data shows a greater increase in pay for people with advance degrees in the private sector over a shorter period of time. I have been in my present position more than 20 years and make in round figures approximately $70,000 less than at least one Congressman with less than two years of service who has been most vocal in his criticism of federal pay and benefits. With respect to "moving federal workers to lower cost areas like Utah" I would point out that I make approximately more than $25,000 above the average salary in the zip code in which I live. The Congressman makes about $20,000 more than the average salary of inhabitants of the zip code in which he maintains his domicile in Utah. The median salary in this Utah zip code is $154,000, substantially higher than my present salary.

Posted by: douglas_e_coleman | November 12, 2010 6:10 AM | Report abuse

anarcho-liberal-tarian, you couldn't make it in the private sector. You couldn't handle anything more than your current 20-hour workweek.

Or, stop whining and get a real job.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | November 12, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

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