UNCLE SAM’S CLUB
As long as there has been a federal government, we have heard that, while the pay is not real good working for Uncle Sam, there are wonderful health care and retirement benefits that even up the total package, so just don’t pay attention to the pay. However, we now find out that things have changed. These days the average federal non-military worker earns about 2 percent more than a private sector worker in a comparable job.
If we tack on the feds’ generous pension system, our government (or “gub-ment” as we say in Texas) civilian workers are making out like bandits – 16 percent more pay and benefits than the rest of us. Overall, the average benefits package for federal workers, including health insurance and a defined benefit pension plan, costs the government about 48 percent more than for private sector workers in comparable jobs. (To me, it is unclear how these workers are making 16 percent more but cost the government 48 percent more. Maybe they get annual bonuses or overtime on weekdays.)
These figures are an over-simplification; of course. We can’t really make sweeping statements about our 2.3 million civilian federal government workers, or 1.7 percent of the U.S. workforce. But in a nutshell, starting at the bottom on the federal pay scale, you are doing better compared to your cousin who works for Exxon. But when you get to the upper scales, like engineers and doctors, you could make more in the private sector.
More precisely, lower-skill federal workers with a high school diploma or less make 21 percent higher wages — about $4 more an hour — than private sector employees in similar jobs. What’s more, the federal worker-bees have far better health and pension benefits than their comparable colleagues in the private sector. Moving up to the mid-pay scale, for workers with a college degree, private and public sector wages – just wages — are about the same, but the government’s benefits package means overall compensation is about $7 more an hour, on average.
Looking at the tip-top of the federal pay ladder, the government has difficulty competing for highly qualified workers like doctors and engineers because federal pay isn’t as high. Indeed, federal workers with a professional degree or a doctorate earn, on average, 23 percent less than private sector employees. However, the government offers far greater job security, especially in these days of down-sizing, layoffs and firings. (We learn all of this from a study by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office which, by the way, is itself a government agency. Hmmm.)
The easiest way to spot the disparity in private vs. public pay at the top levels is watching federal trials. Bernie Madoff or some Wall Street slime-ball has those high-powered attorneys with their alligator-skin briefcases and $2,000 Armani suits facing some poor just-out-of-law-school lawyer making Food Stamp pay. No wonder we the people lose most of these trials. The Dept. of Justice is simply a training ground for future lawyers who can jump over to the private sector. Those who are left wear alligator-skin suits.
Total compensation for civilian federal workers costs roughly $200 billion a year. Their pay has been frozen for the past two years because of our useless attempt to balance the budget. President Obama proposed lifting the pay freeze next year but limiting the increase to a small 0.5 percent hike. However, the House voted to keep the pay freeze for another year. Congressional pay stays at $174,000 a year plus benefits such as travel allowance, office expenses and campaign contributions, aka bribes.
It is considered cute to dump on our government workers at all levels, but these sweeping put-downs — usually by pols running for office so they, too, can be a government worker – are cheap shots, if you can consider $200 billion cheap. Most of us have little directly to do with the federal government. My only one-on-one is my postal delivery person, who is excellent. Incidentally, the U.S. Postal Service does not – repeat, NOT – get any of our tax money, unlike Newt Gingrich’s pension.
The key to these comparisons is, of course, “comparable jobs.” I made $80 a month as a Marine infantryman. Is there a civilian position that entails the same skills with comparable pay? Maybe those of a Mafia hit man. We pay the president $500,000 a year. The job has perks — Air Force One leaps to mind – and drawbacks, as Lincoln told Kennedy. Could the CEO of our federal government pull in more as a hedge fund chief?
We need to determine the civilian equivalent of an FBI undercover agent or lighthouse keeper before we can compare pay. You’re a DEA agent, armed with a government-issued cap pistol, waiting all night behind a cactus along the border to apprehend 24 drug smugglers armed with howitzers. Is there a private rent-a-cop equivalent? Wal-Mart doesn’t hire moles to hack the Kremlin’s laptops. GM apparently doesn’t have anyone to cook the books, like Congress does. Even our largest companies don’t do what our feds do. We can’t compare Apple to Agent Orange.
Studies show no child ever said he or she wanted to grow up to be a bureaucrat, but if we like those Social Security checks, Medicare payments and some guy in a white lab coat inspecting dead chickens for e-coli, it’s a good thing somebody scratches our itch. So it appears our ire at Washington is misplaced. It should be directed towards those hypocritical dirt bags we elect, and re-elect, to Congress. But we mistake their incompetence for those of all federal employees.
I always wanted to print up a bumper sticker: “The Alamo Was Defended By Gub-ment Workers” or maybe: “Man on the Moon — Close Enough For Government Work.” Here’s one: “’Fed Up’ Was Written By a Loser.” “Where’s the Tomb of the Unknown Whiner?” So, Mr. Wannabe Congressman or Miss Talk Show Radio Screed with your daily put-downs of our federal employees, deliver your own damn mail.
Ashby governs at firstname.lastname@example.org