Debating "Average" Federal Salary Figures

By on August 29, 2006 in Current Events with 0 Comments

All of us are interested in salary figures of other people. One of the most popular sections of the FedSmith site is the pay calculator section that displays the pay for the different federal employee salary levels in different cities around the country.

Articles that we publish about federal salaries and benefits always seem to stir up a hornet’s nest–regardless of the source of the information. There are a variety of reasons for the reaction. Some readers just do not believe the figures. Some readers believe the figures but think they are distorted for various reasons. Others see a political purpose underlying the organization that compiled the figures.

Last year, we ran two articles on “average” federal salary figures. The first article (A Quick Look at Federal Employee Salaries) noted that the average federal employee in 2004 made $60,517. This article and a subsequent one on the same subject generated a number of responses such as this quickly drafted response from a Navy employee: “all i can say is that someone in washington is overpaid because i have been a gs-11 in missouri and never!!! made $60,000 a year and that stuff about the average grade being a gs-9 is not true for missouri either. 50% of all federal workers are gs-7’s and below so stop spreading this bull. maybe the average congressman makes that kind of money but not the average joe.”

Another reader, this one from the Department of Agriculture, said: “It would be more meaningful in my opinion to post the median salary of the federal workforce. Averages are skewed by extremes, while the median is the true “center” (50% make more, 50% make less). That would give a better picture.”

Here are some updated figures on the average salary of federal employees for 2006. The average annual salary worldwide for the 1.8 million federal civilian employees is $63,125. For those readers who asked whether Congressional salaries were included in the average salary figure for federal employees, the OPM averge salary figures are for the Executive Branch only. It includes the Senior Executive Service. It does not include Members of Congress, their staffs or the Judicial Branch.

Moreover, not everyone will receive that much money because of the differences in locality pay, pay grade and the job being performed. And, in a vain attempt to make some feel better who make much less than the “average” figure, keep in mind that a lower salary does not mean your salary is less than it should be or that it is unfair or that there is something wrong with your career. In some counties in our country, federal employees are among the highest paid employees in the area–but still below the national average for federal employees. At the other end of the spectrum, the average GS employee in the Washington, DC metropolitan area for 2006 makes more than the national average as it comes in at $80,425–probably because the average grade tends to be higher in Washington, DC and the cost of living is greater there than in many other communities.

And, in response to the numerous readers who said that the average salary figure was misleading and that we should use the median figure rather than the average figure, we contacted the Office of Personnel Management for the information. The public affairs office was very helpful and quickly provided the information. So, according to OPM, here is the median adjusted base pay for Executive branch (non-postal) employees as of March 2006:$60,636.

For those who may be wondering, the dictionary definition of “median” is: “a value or quantity lying at the midpoint of a frequency distribution of observed values or quantities, such that there is an equal probability of falling above or below it.”

The readers who said the median figure would be lower in presenting a picture of federal employee salary figures are right. It is lower but perhaps not as much lower as some would have expected.

And, for all future federal retirees pondering your probable lifestyle after you turn in your employee ID badge, you may be interested in knowing that the average federal employee getting a monthly check under the CSRS system receives $2,396.00 as of January 2006. The average FERS annuitant gets $868.00 from OPM. (Thanks again to the OPM public affairs office for the information.)

So, for what it may be worth, the “average” federal employee is much better off than the “average” American. Most federal employees make a good salary, even those who fall under the “average” figures. Should the salaries be higher? Are they too high or too low? Is the government an “Elite Island of Secure and High-Paid Workers” that are supported in high style by an overburdened public that pays taxes to support federal salaries?

That answer seems to be based primarily on the economic interests and perspective of those asking the question. The figures in this article are provided by the federal government. You will have to reach your own conclusions about whether federal employees make too much or too little (or about the right amount).

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters onĀ federal human resources.