Gov Career

By Phil Piemonte

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Pay and benefits: It's right there in black and white

Over the years, the general press has gotten a lot of mileage out of federal pay and benefits -- and helped turn fed-bashing into a national sport.

Take USA Today, for example. Back at the end of 2009, it ran the headline: “For feds, more get 6-figure salaries.”

A couple of months later, it published this story: “Federal pay ahead of private industry.”

Five months after that: “Federal workers earning double their private counterparts,”

Over succeeding months, as more media and politicians bellied up to the news trough, the publication occasionally stoked the fire: “More federal workers' pay tops $150,000,” and “Some federal workers more likely to die than lose jobs.”

The most recent headline from their pages, if you have not seen it, summarizes the findings of USA Today's latest analysis: “Federal retirement plans almost as costly as Social Security.”

The story furnishes numbers to support its case. But as a professor of our acquaintance once said: “Anyone can come up with a number. The question is: What does it mean?”

For example, this latest article lays federal retirement costs up against Social Security costs: “In all, the government committed more money to the 10 million former public servants last year than the $690 billion it paid to 54 million Social Security beneficiaries.”

That’s a lot of numbers to parse out. But in this case, before even asking what the numbers mean, one might ask: What does “committed” mean? Does it mean allocated? Paid? Spent? Invested? A combination? Was the entire amount expended? Does the amount “committed to” feds include/not include Social Security (for FERS retirees) and Medicare?

In short, it’s not entirely clear. At the same time, the subtext of stories like these seems entirely clear: Feds are the “haves” and the rest of the folks out there are the “have nots.”

Unfortunately, average consumers of news—if there are such people—usually haven’t had their brains crammed full of seminars on advanced statistics and communications analysis by professors like the one mentioned above. On the other hand, their knees jerk quite readily when they see information like this.

But there might be a trace of good news. While stories about “overpaid” feds continue to pop up in the media (to be amplified by some politicians), from our perch here it seems that each new story raises a bit less public indignation than the one before.

Maybe the story has run its course for most members of the public, who probably have little real concern about what your pay or benefits are. After all, their real worries pertain to their own pay and benefits, not yours.

Regrettably for feds, some members of Congress are determined to hang onto that story line long after the headlines fade.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Oct 04, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Fri, Oct 14, 2011 Terry San Diego

I have been a federial worker for 24 years. Since that time I have lost the better retirement system that was in place when I first started, I have been denied upgraded positions because they were canceled due to cost downgrades, I have lost a position at one base to contracters, (who cost more that the fed workers they replaced and have since lost jobs to other contractors). I now work at the same grade I started at 24 years ago. I have been in this position for 9 years because those positions for upgrades are no longer there. They now have a hiring freeze and wage freeze. My duties have increased as they keep losing positions and not refilling them but still require the work gets done. I am lucky to have a job but the press has painted a picture of these overpaid lazy government workers and because of that those lower paid workers at the bottom like myself are the ones feeling those cuts. You would think that after 24 years in any other job or company someone would have advanced past the position they started at. I am in a wheelchair and wanted to get off federial help and earn my way. I can tell you this I HAVE EARNED MY PAY. Because of these stories by the press I lost all chances of ever getting past a GS-5. I will work here for another 7 years so I can retires at the same pay I had when I was on disability 31 years ago. Thanks USA today!

Mon, Oct 10, 2011 Northern Va.

I have thought about this, and now figured it out. Most people would like something for nothing, but with government, for some reason they EXPECT something for nothing. For years, I worked at low wages as a government employee, and worked other jobs to make ends meet. Our salaries have now come close to those of employees in large corporations, and people are complaining. I have led a project that has saved millions of the last few years. Get over it, most of us more than earn our pay and benefits.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011

The average congressional salary is 174,000 (with of course the Speakers and Leaders receiving more). (I encourage you to check for yourselves at the website.) Now let's compare this to the majority of federal employees. It is more than reasonable to say that the highest grades most employees will see are GS-12 or WG-11 (above that is management positions, and most employees aren't supervisors). Even at GS 12 step 10 that's 89,450 (that's rest of U.S. locality pay included, salaries can be found on site). And let's be realistic, not every federal employee to your left or right is making GS12 step 10 money, meaning that at minimum Congressional salaries are double that of the average federal employee. Is that enough black and white for you? Maybe Congress should take another look at the real numbers before hanging on too tightly about who's making the 6 figure paychecks.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 Ben Gibson San Antonio

I am a professional; Board Certified in my field. About 2 years ago a National professional organization (ASSE) did a world-wide on-line survey asking its membership who held this certification about their income. I responded. About 6 months after the survey, the results were published. I looked at the results for Texas, where I live, and found that I make over $17,000 less annually than the AVERAGE for those in my State. I am considered a high grade employee. Also, I wish people who are in the CSRS, would refer to our retirement as an annuity instead of a pension. Generally, a pension is money you get for retirement without having paid anything into it. We are only drawing out money we invested. In fact, I suspect if we could take the years we invested and have that money compounded at a conservative annual rate, we would be millionaires. Our “representatives” and the media, prefer to ignore this and act like we are being “given” a pension.

Fri, Oct 7, 2011 Oklahoma

It is frustrating to me that the federal salaries that are being quoted are not representative of a great many of us. Also, the Windfall Elimination Provision is robbing us of our earned Social Security. If we are in such great shape, why is it that people I know who worked the same type of job in private industry are doing much better with their retirement pay and receiving 100% of their Social Security.

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