Are federal employees twice as good at their jobs as the rest of us?

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Not earning enough in your current job? If you can land a job with the federal government, you could possibly double your total compensation. Nice work if you can get it. According to figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average wage for the nation's 108 million private sector workers in 2008 was $50,028. But for the 1.9 million employees of the federal government, the average wage was $79,197… a difference of more than 58%. Add in benefits and the average total compensation for private sector workers rises to $59,909 while the average total compensation for federal workers is nearly double that, at $119,982. That means private sector employees receive benefits equal to less than 20 percent of their wages, while federal workers receive benefits worth nearly 52% of their pay.

Last summer, Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. turned his spotlight on federal wages. The Cato Institute is a policy research think tank that seeks to maintain its independence by accepting no government funding, and describes itself as a bit closer to liberal than conservative, but prefers no affiliation with either of the major parties.

In 2000, says Edwards, the average total compensation for federal employees was 66% higher than the average total compensation for the private sector ($76,187 compared to $45,772). Leap ahead eight years – through the two terms of George W. Bush – and the gap has grown to 200%. According to Edwards, federal employees thrived during those years partly because Bush had "little little interest in fiscal restraint", and often got "rolled by the federal unions." But Edwards's explanation shows the blame wasn't limited to the Oval Office. Members of Congress, he says, employ large numbers of federal workers in their districts, and they continually push for increasing the federal worker compensation. He describes the result as",an increasingly overpaid elite of government workers who are insulated from the economic reality of recessions and from the tough competitive climate of the private sector."

With the country still in a fiscal slump and federal deficits mounting, Edwards would like to see federal wages frozen for several years. "At least until the private sector economy has recovered and average workers start seeing some wage gains of their own. At the same time, gold-plated federal benefit packages should be scaled back as unaffordable given today's massive budget deficits." He adds that federal workers also enjoy extremely high job security, unlike most of the rest of the workforce. Why, he asks, do we also have to pay lavish salaries?

One man's plan

If you paid attention to last week's election in Massachusetts – the election to fill the vacant Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy – the victorious candidate ran on a platform that included revamping federal compensation. During his campaign, Republican Scott Brown, who was then a state senator from Wrentham, Massachusetts, said he wanted to freeze the pay of federal workers as a way to bring Washington spending under control. He told reporters,

"I recognize that our federal workers do important work", he said in a press conference. "But, it's not right that lesser-paid private sector workers suffering through a recession have to pay for expensive government salaries."

"Lavish pay and benefit packages have unfortunately become a way of life for public employees. It's time to bring fiscal sanity to Washington. I support a temporary freeze on federal wages until the Congress devises a plan to control spending and debt."

Responding to those comments, Randy Erwin of the National Federation of Federal Employees said Brown's claims are deceptive. Federal employees, said Erwin, tend to be white collar workers and fill professional jobs that require a higher level of skills and education. Private workers, on the other hand, include minimum wage jobs that require fewer qualifications.

"Every year they try to cook this up. It's simply not true. They are totally different sets of workers", Erwin said. He added that federal employees earn less than private sector employees in similar positions.

At a time when job security in the private sector grows weaker every day and wage increases are scarce, Erwin may have a tough time selling his point of view to the public. Meanwhile, just last week Brown managed to handily take a seat – with 52% of the vote – that had been owned by liberal Democrat, Ted Kennedy for 47 years. During his campaign, Brown described his philosophy on federal wages this way:

"My own plan for controlling spending and debt is to give President Obama the line item veto, freeze nonmilitary discretionary spending, and conduct a top-to-bottom review of all federal programs to eliminate overlap and redundancies."

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