Employees, writer face off over fair wages


August 18, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS

Washington - and much of Southern Maryland - is a company town wholly dominated by the federal government. And anyone who suggests that "the company" freeze its workers' wages and slash their benefits, as the CATO Institute's tax director did in Sunday's Washington Post, should perhaps think twice before heading outdoors.

"I did sort of envision riding on the Metro with a bunch of bureaucrats and them saying, `There he is. Let's get him,' and then chasing and whacking me with their federal badges," said Chris Edwards, the author of the op-ed piece that called on Congress to freeze federal workers' wages "for a few years."

Edwards wasn't assaulted on the Metro, but he did receive "an enormous amount of incoming e-mail," some of which he characterized as "name-calling." He also described many federal workers as "disgusted" with his ideas but said that, surprisingly, half of the feedback he received was positive.

Edwards' piece highlighted a recently updated and often-ignored set of data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis that's used to calculate the country's gross domestic product, the market value of all of the goods and services produced in the United States during a period of time.

Buried deep in those charts were figures that, when added up, showed that the average total compensation of a federal civilian worker in 2005 was $106,579, or double the average total compensation for a private sector worker: $53,289.

These calculations included benefits, such as health care for life and pensions, but the scales remained in feds' favor when the perks were removed: $71,114 vs. $43,917.

Edwards found graver concerns when he analyzed historical trends: Since 1990, federal workers' average compensation has increased 129 percent compared with 74 percent in the private sector. From Edwards' point of view, being a federal worker sounds an awful lot like driving a Cadillac.

"Federal workers receive generous health benefits during work and retirement, a pension plan with inflation protection, a retirement savings plan with generous matching contributions, large disability benefits, and union protections," wrote Edwards, whose employer is a conservative, Washington-based think tank. "They often have generous holiday and vacation schedules, flexible hours, training options, incentive awards, flexible spending accounts, and a more relaxed pace of work than private-sector workers.

"Perhaps the most important benefit of federal employment is extreme job security."

All of this is contrary to the general belief that federal workers, although well taken care of in retirement, are generally underpaid. That view is based on a separate set of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Rather than lumping the hamburger flippers and the doctors into one big "private sector" category, the labor statistics compare government attorneys with private attorneys, and government engineers with private-sector engineers. These surveys report about a 13 percent "pay gap" in the private sector's favor, but do not, as Edwards points out, factor in benefits.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that Edwards' analysis paints an inaccurate portrait of the federal bureaucracy.

"The federal workforce is a white collar workforce, and more and more federal jobs are in professional categories, like lawyers, accountants, scientific experts, etc.," Kelley wrote this week. "A much larger percentage of federal workers have college degrees and advanced degrees than private sector workers. So the comparison of the white collar federal workforce to the entire private sector workforce, which includes many retail and service jobs, isn't apples to apples."

Kelley, however, did agree with one of Edwards' points: that the federal government is becoming increasingly top-heavy.

Edwards blames this on annual, recession-proof raises set by Congress and "regular promotions that move workers into higher salary brackets." As Edwards said this week, "there are certainly ways to push people into higher brackets who don't necessarily deserve it."

Kelley, however, blames growing managerial ranks on outsourcing. The government ships lower-wage jobs out to private firms, leaving higher-paid managers to oversee that work.

Two angry Post readers - both federal workers - wrote letters in response to Edwards' op-ed, reminding everyone that aggregate statistics do little to convey what's really happening. One writer, Steven Johnson of Columbus, Ohio, said:

"Just for grins, I decided to review what a honey pot I've been in since 1973, when I joined the federal workforce fresh out of college. Using inflation tables compiled by Robert Sahr of Oregon State University, I find that the entry-level salary at which I started, and the GS scale as a whole, is 14.6 percent below what it would have been if it had risen at the rate of inflation since 1973."

Johnson concluded his letter with, "A true gravy train, indeed."

The Bureau of Economic Analysis data can be read at www .bea.gov/bea/dn/nipaweb/SelectTable.asp?Selected=N. (Tables 6.2D, 6.5D and 6.6D are the pertinent ones.)

The writer would like to hear your thoughts on private versus federal sector pay. She can be reached at melissa.harris@ baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at www.baltimoresun.com/federal.

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