GAO finds workers overpaid Study says thousands of federal employees benefit by inequities


WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are paid more than their job descriptions say they are worth, a new government study suggests.

Minority workers are more likely to benefit from these pay distortions than white workers, concluded auditors for the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.

But women were more likely to be underpaid than men when their actual work was compared with official pay standards.

Among the explanations: Many supervisors pushed federal workers into higher pay levels than their jobs justify, investigators suspect.

Generally, that was to get around puny pay raises approved by Congress in the 1980s or to help workers who had bumped into federal pay ceilings.

Women tend to be underpaid, personnel experts speculate, because their work was less valued when their jobs and pay were defined in the 1970s.

Where minority workers are overcompensated, that may be caused by supervisors afraid of bias charges.

The GAO's findings, challenged by the government's own personnel agency, suggest billions of payroll dollars are being misspent annually.

Washington may also be depressing women's pay, at least in many service and support jobs, and fostering minority dependence on federal employment.

The five-year study, on which the GAO spent nearly $2 million, reflects the treatment of some 369,000 federal office workers, most in nonmanagement jobs such as secretaries, medical clerks and auditors.

In less precisely defined management and blue-collar jobs, disparities caused by sex, race and pay grade are probably even greater, said Nancy Kingsbury, senior GAO supervisor of the work.

She offered no explanation of the politically sensitive results. Among them:

* Jobs dominated by female workers were almost twice as likely to be graded too low in pay as they were to be accurately graded or overgraded. These included secretaries, accounting technicians and nursing assistants.

* Jobs heavily populated by minority workers were more than twice as likely to be overgraded. These included Equal Employment Opportunity counselors, computer operators and Border Patrol agents.

* Four out of five office workers above the average pay grade -- GS-9 in "federalese" -- were paid more than GAO considered their due.

* Nearly half the workers in lower-tier support jobs, GS-7 or lower, were paid less than GAO thought they were worth.

Overall, the findings are unwelcome to the Clinton administration and to federal employee unions. Both contend that government workers are paid 30 percent less than comparable private-sector workers.

Nor are the GAO's findings welcome to a Republican-controlled House Civil Service Subcommittee now weighing personnel system reforms.

"We want a government-wide job classification review, not one aimed at particular target groups," said George Nesterczuk, staff director of the House Civil Service Subcommittee.

Even the federal Office of Personnel Management, whose job it is to find and remedy job and pay inequities, rejected the GAO's conclusions.

In a letter to Ms. Kingsbury, OPM Director James King wrote that the GAO's "methodology is insufficient to support the study's findings."

In a follow-up statement, the OPM charged its GAO critics with "fundamentally flawed data gathering methods" and said it had "no evidence that supports GAO's claims regarding the extent of misclassified jobs."

The GAO's methodology might be debated, Ms. Kingsbury responded in a telephone interview, but "OPM hasn't looked at overgrading in a decade."

It's a costly problem: If each federal employee is overpromoted by one grade, the cost is about $6 billion a year.

Underpromotions, of course, provide offsetting savings, and some of the jobs GAO reviewed were not overgraded.

Among the most overpromoted workers in government, according to the GAO, are Equal Employment Opportunity counselors and compliance officers at the various agencies. More than 19 out of 20 were deemed to be paid more than their jobs are worth.

Comparably high overgrading was found for computer operators and Border Patrol agents, both jobs with high minority participation.

These findings, which Ms. Kingsbury said might be a result of inaccuracies in official ratings systems, "fly in the face of reality," responded Oscar Eason Jr., president of Blacks in Government, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Most minority workers are not in high-level EEO or Border Patrol jobs, but in support jobs where pay is suppressed, said Mr. Eason.

"The EEO has traditionally been a dumping ground for black professionals," he said.

If true, that might explain why so many EEO positions examined, which paid an average of $45,000 a year, were deemed overgraded.

Michael Widomski, a spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had not seen the study and declined to comment.

In theory, EEO counselors need the job status of senior managers they advise, two federal personnel experts said, speaking on the condition that they not be identified.

Senior agency officials don't like to challenge job-upgrade requests from politically sensitive EEO offices, they added.

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