New data on federal-private compensation gap rekindles debate

Recent data indicating that the average federal employee enjoys better pay and benefits than the typical private sector worker is misleading, according to federal employee groups and nonprofit organizations. The data, released last week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, does not break down compensation by profession or geographical area, critics noted.

"We've seen this movie before," said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "It makes no sense to compare across-the-board averages of public sector and private sector salaries. Would people be surprised that people who work in the high-tech sector make more than people who work in construction?"

According to the statistics, the federal government's 1.8 million civilian employees made an average of $77,143 in 2007, while the standard private sector salary was $48,035. With the value of benefits tacked on, average federal compensation rose to $116,450, while typical private sector employees reaped $57,615.

Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, wrote in a blog post that those numbers should prompt a salary freeze, and urged government to contract out some highly paid and highly skilled jobs like those of air traffic controllers. Edwards, who has made similar arguments in past years, said he recognized that the data did not provide a job-by-job comparison, but he said it was still important because it placed a value on federal benefits. Other figures, including those published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only look at salary, he said.

"It's the most comprehensive measure of compensation in [the] federal versus private [sectors]," Edwards said.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said federal benefits actually had stayed fairly constant in value, and federal employees were not overcompensated compared to their private sector counterparts.

"In the face of largely static benefits for federal employees, there is unfortunately ample evidence of significant private sector cutbacks in employee benefits -- health insurance and pensions, just to name two -- playing a substantial role in any such comparison," Kelley said.

Randy Erwin, legislative director for the National Federation of Federal Employees, said federal salaries were artificially inflated by the contracting out of many low-wage federal jobs.

"On the whole, federal workers perform work that is of a higher level and complexity than the average private sector worker," Erwin said. "The government jobs that remain are highly skilled and increasingly specialized, and they are properly classified at higher grade levels. Grades GS-11 to GS-13 are the most common."

Matt Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said he was frustrated that the Bureau of Economic Analysis continued to release the data.

"This is becoming a consistent, but misleading analysis by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which unfortunately is fueling business-friendly special interest groups like Cato to advocate for costly federal contracting schemes," he said.

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