Statement from John Berry on Federal Pay

By on March 10, 2011 in Current Events with 23 Comments


before the




March 9, 2011

Chairman Ross, Ranking Member Lynch, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today about the Federal workforce and Federal employee pay. As you know, recently there has been attention in Congress and in the media about the compensation of Federal employees and how it compares to the compensation of the private sector. Many of the comparisons being made are misleading and mask important differences that may undermine the efforts of dedicated hardworking men and women who serve their country.

President Obama said it best last week: “I don’t think it does… any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. We need to attract the best and the brightest to public service. These times demand it.”

As this Administration’s chief people officer, my goal is simple: hire the best. We strive to get the American workers we need for the American people we serve — and protect. That’s why reforming our hiring process and hiring more veterans have been two of my first and highest priorities.

Over the past two years, we have been able to move from a complicated essay based application process to accepting resumes and cover letters. We have reduced job announcements to a reasonable length and put them in plain language. We are contacting employees at four points in the process and we are working on reducing the time to hire. And last year, when government agencies hired fewer people overall, through the veterans hiring initiative, we hired 2,000 more veterans than in the previous year.agencies hired fewer people overall, through the veterans hiring initiative, we hired 2,000 more veterans than in the previous year.agencies hired fewer people overall, through the veterans hiring initiative, we hired 2,000 more veterans than in the previous year.

We have been fortunate throughout our history to have talented and hardworking individuals willing to forgo more lucrative careers and step forward for public service. It is the mission of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to recruit, retain and honor that world-class workforce to serve the American people. In order to do this, we must provide pay and benefits on par with other large companies for whom we compete for talent. We cannot and should not be the employer of last resort.

Federal employees hold lives in their hands and oversee large sums of taxpayer money. We need talented and innovative people at the Department of Defense supporting our war fighters. We need great doctors, nurses, and scientists at our Veterans Hospitals and the National Institutes of Health doing life saving work. We need creative and tough men and women at the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to protect us from another terrorist attack. These are highly-skilled jobs and the people who fill them cost money.

Despite the complex challenges we face, the Federal civilian workforce is virtually as small today as it has been in the modern era. In 1953, there was one Federal worker for every 78 residents. In 2009, it was one for every 147. We have also dramatically shifted to a much higher-skilled workforce. Forty years ago, approximately one-third of the Federal workforce was blue collar, now it’s approximately one-tenth.2 Back then, most white collar employees were clerks; today the white collar workforce is highly specialized, and needs skills, experience, and judgment in order to serve and support a knowledge-based economy.

Federal Pay and Benefits


President Obama has frozen annual pay adjustments for two years. Before that, the adjustments moved in virtual lock step with the private sector labor market, regardless of who controlled Congress or the White House.3 However, such comparisons are complicated by the fact that Federal and private sector workers do very different types of work. Raw comparisons of average pay between Federal and private sector employees mask important differences in the skill levels, complexity of work, scope of responsibility, size of organization, location, experience level, and special requirements, as well as exposure to personal danger. For example, data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) shows that half of Federal workers work in the nine highest-paying occupations groups such as judges, engineers, scientists, and nuclear plant inspectors. In comparison, less than a third of private sector workers worked in those same nine highest-paying groups. In contrast, a fifth of private sector workers work in the four lowest-paying occupation groups (excluding law enforcement, which does not have a good private sector counterpart), as cooks, janitors, service workers, and manufacturing workers. Fewer than one in thirteen Federal workers work in those four lowest-paying groups.

Even comparisons that purport to compare employees in the same occupations are misleading. For example, some claim that Federal attorneys make more than private sector attorneys.4 In fact, while more than half of General Attorneys in the Federal Government earn less than $90,000 in their first year of service, the median first year salary for comparable attorneys in the private sector is $145,000. 5 The methodology is weak since jobs that have the same titles and some similar duties are not necessarily comparable. For example, one-third of Federally employed cooks work for the Department of Justice in prisons, where they also supervise inmates in a clearly dangerous environment.6 We must pay more to fill these critical jobs with qualified individuals.

As noted in the President’s Pay Agent Report and discussed in other venues, there is a need to consider reforms of the white-collar Federal pay system. We have serious concerns about a process that requires a single percentage adjustment in the pay of all white-collar civilian Federal employees in each locality pay area without regard to the differing labor markets for major occupational groups. In addition, we believe the underlying model and methodology for estimating pay gaps should be reexamined to ensure that Federal sector and non-Federal sector pay comparisons are as accurate as possible.

For every level of every job in every geographic area, we must make the best comparisons we can to determine a competitive wage to offer to get the people we need.


To compete for the talent we need, the Federal government, like most large employers, also provides an array of benefits for employees and their families. To do that, we must offer incentives competitive with those offered in the private sector. These benefits are not free to employees. Employees share in the cost of the benefits, in many cases paying 100 percent of the cost.

In the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), enrollees share 30 percent of the premium costs.7 For optional dental and vision benefits, they pay 100 percent.8 For the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance Program (FEGLI), employees pay 66 percent of the basic premium, and the full cost of any additional coverage. For the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program, (FLTCIP) enrollees pay the entire premium cost. For these 100% employee paid programs, we only negotiate a group rate.

Our current retirement benefits are competitive. The struggles States and local governments are going through with pensions right now, we reformed 25 years ago. Since 1983, all new employees have enrolled in the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). FERS uses the three-legged stool model: a Basic Benefit Plan, Social Security, and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The basic benefit is a “defined benefit”, which is fully paid for as envisioned by the bipartisan Federal pension reform President Reagan signed into law in 1986.9 Social Security is the same as for every other American. And the final leg is the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), a defined contribution plan in which employees may contribute and receive a limited match from the Government. They have investment choices, much like private sector 401(k) plans.

Hire the Best, Respect the Workforce, Expect the Best, and Honor Service

Bottom Line: This Administration is committed to providing the superior service the American people expect and deserve. Managers and employees who aren’t doing that should be held accountable, and ultimately fired if they do not improve. There should be no place in the Federal government for non-performers to hide.

Our pay system is not perfect. I have said before that the system is six decades old and could use a reexamination. As for comparability, it is not perfect either. We are required by law to reduce the comparisons of all the Federal and non-Federal occupations and geographic regions down to one number. This does not reflect the complexity of the world we live in.

But even if the system is not perfect, we must reject misleading uses of data that perpetuate the myth that Federal employees are as a whole overcompensated. As a whole, the wages that the Federal Government pays its employees are fair and the benefits it offers are competitive. Any reforms we undertake must meet the following principles that the existing GS system does well: transparency, equal pay for equal work, no political influence, ability to recruit and retain a well-qualified workforce.

This is how it must be if we are to recruit and retain the best workers to carry out our critical life-saving and life enhancing missions. Falling behind is unacceptable.

I have had the privilege of working with career civil servants for over a quarter century. They are good, hard working people. The vast majority of them are doing good work for the American people—whether it is as a rocket scientist, VA nurse, park ranger, cancer researcher, prison guard, or any other position. Remember — 85 percent of Federal employees work outside Washington. They live and work in your communities, in every State, every Congressional district, serving their neighbors and making their fellow Americans safer and freer.

The great majority who work hard and provide good service to the American people should be recognized and applauded. The most recent employee survey showed that 97 percent of respondents answered positively to the statement “when needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” I challenge you to find another organization with that level of commitment to its mission. It is time for 30-plus years of denigration to end. In this time when so many families are struggling to make ends meet, we should acknowledge that Federal employees are making sacrifices too, not only by accepting a freeze in their pay, but also by standing committed to public service and our nation.

Again, I thank you for the opportunity to be here, and I’ll be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

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23 Replies

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  1. William5 says:

    I am a DoD civilian employee. As part of my job, I am qualified and certified to inspect manufactured parts for Nuclear submarines and have done so. I am also qualified and certified to inspect Cathode Ray Tubes manufactured for aircraft, missile launch systems on Navy vessels, etc. I do this on an everyday basis. I am also qualified and certified to perform work for NASA on space parts manufacturing and even o-rings. I have been trained at NASA space centers and at Navy Nuclear training facilities. Does this sound like a job many other American might do? I do know that similar work in the private sector pays more as I have been offered jobs at Raytheon and Boeing in the past for more money. I chose the job security I had. Why am I being demonized in the press by those who protest that I am overpaid and underworked? Adjust my pay and benefits if you must, but don’t cause me to take more pay cuts that threaten my and my families’ future. And, yes, I am a disabled American veteran having served in Vietnam. I’ve served as a civilain in support of the troops in Desert Storm, Kosovo and Iraq. I put my life in danger because I support the troops, love my job and love my country. Give me a break, please.

  2. Pissfirwilly says:

    I also work for the Forest Service, I left a 55k a year job in the private sector to get a 42k a year job with the forest service, I like what i do with the forest service and do more than my job description says because i want to do the best job ever, But that is the way i was raised and taught in Private life as well as a Veteran of the AF, which by the way only gave me 5 points for being a vet….When are the American People going to wake up and see the BS that is being spread by our leaders in the Congress and Senate toward the Federal Workers when they can’t even balance the budget since i don’t even remember when. We need real Leaders in Congress that want to be there FOR the people and not for the pay check or the graft they get day in and day out……

  3. Todd E Burdette says:

    I as a Federal Correctional Officer really appreciate the comments Mr. Berry has made because the fact is to become a federal employee in most cases you have had to excel in some part of the field that your applying. And as a non veteran I was hired due to my experience and the veteran points are earned securing our freedoms so Guest before making comments as such remember you can comment because someone has died to secure that freedom. Also we would really appreciate for all of the Republicans that are attacking federal employees to come on over and assume our posts and our pay and see if its worth it. R.I.P. Officer Rivera and the many officers who have laid there lives on the line to protect the same people attacking us.

    • Guest says:

      As a Guest, I am also a retired Fed and married to a Vietnam Vet so need to tell me about securing freedoms. We are also both Republicans. What I stated is that Mr. Berry had months to refute this and chose not to do so. He was going to hire three independent firms but backed off of that alluding to not enough time. Do you not have your ducks in a row when testifying? He obviously didn’t. As we have all said repeatedly he needs to gather up the facts as rhetoric goes nowhere. Then again, what can one expect from an Obama appointee. My point being he could have gathered up data from several occupational series and present facts. He did not do so.

  4. Fed says:

    I’m just wondering how Chairman Ross and his committee arrived at the numbers they presented. He stated that the average salary for federal workers is $70,000 per year and when you add the benefits, $101,000. Are congress and senators included in these figures. If you add in congress and others like them, of course the figures will be high. Keep in mind too, that congress members are given lot’s of money for staffing offices in Washington as well as their home state. Also, they are allowed to fly home and back on a regular basis at the tax payers dollars. What I mentioned is only a tip of the iceberg of what congress is given from our taxes. On top of that congress can make policies that pertain to them only but not other federal employees. They can enforce cuts for federal employees but it won’t apply to them. They need to start with congress and other folks in Washington when they talk numbers. Start cutting there first. Also, congress should serve for terms like the president and not aloud to serve for years and years like they currently do. Think about it. Here we have members of congress that serve in Washington for 30 or so years and during that time they can have fully staffed offices in their home state. If they are going to be in Washington for 30 years I would think they would have moved their family to Washington avoiding the need to fly home every weekend on tax payers dollars and keeping an office in their home state. What is the purpose of that fully staffed office in their home state anyway? One more thing that many people don’t know. Did you know that congress has a physician on site dedicated to them only? Of course we pay for that too.

  5. Ggjackson722 says:

    I applaud Mr. Berry for this very encouraging words, I am a federal civilian servant and very proud of that. I work in the Water Enforcement Branch of the US EPA and I take my position very serious for it involves protecting the waters of the US. If freezing the pay raise for the two years aides in reduction the federal deficit I am all for it. I feel that if I have survived on last year on the current pay, I can do so for the next two years and I am willing to do my share to reduce this burden placed on my country, it will not keep me in any way from performing my job to the best of my abilities. Thank you Mr. Berry for your support of the federal employees and thanks to our beloved President. God bless you and your families.

  6. Richard Smalley says:

    Well said, Mr. Barthlome and thank you. Hopefully your elucidation, regarding veteran preference, will educate more than just our “Guest”. I am also a proud Veteran and a Civil Servant of 38 years.

  7. Falnarfe says:

    I totally agree with John Berry on this issue. I retired as an air traffic controller, after almost 40 years of federal public service. Almost every person I ever met or worked with was totally dedicated to their job and keeping the flying public safe. Our retirement system is fully funded and not a drain on the treasury. People need to get the facts straight on this and many other issues.

  8. Guest says:

    When objectively analyzing fair Federal pay standards to existing facts and circumstances, why doesn’t the Heritage Foundation; the OPM Director, Congress, or any other research groups take into consideration the increasing workload of 2.1M Federal government employees to the ever-growing U.S. population? (Now at 310,967,071 total residents. Please see:….

    This little tidbit of relevant data was vaguely touched by the panel members, where it can be easily swept under the table without further consideration. Shouldn’t this fact be compared by the Administration to past Administrations?

    Most Federal government employees are extremely dedicated and hardworking. Just like the U.S. population; they pay taxes and support the government and equally, earn and need every cent of their paycheck. They should never become a target of lower wages and benefits, since they too, pay for and into existing health and retirement plans, etc.

    • TractorEngineer says:

      Could you imagine what would happen if the CEO of Ford went to the annual stockholders’ meeting and said that the average Ford worker is ignorant, lazy, overpaid, undeserving of their “Cadillac benefits”, and is THE problem with the company? That’s exactly what Congress is doing to us. John Berry is the first senior official I’ve seen who is talking some sense instead of pushing us right out into oncoming traffic on the freeway.

  9. What tha? says:

    Lets not forget about the wildland firefighters that work for the U.S. Forest Service. These firefighters are the most underpaid in the country and yet they are lumped into the “federal employees are overpaid lie” This federal agency is in the top 10 for the lowest paid federal agencies. How ironic it is that these are the same men and women who put their lives on the line day in and day out protecting our nations natural resources and managing our forest land. This agency has had and will continue to have a tremendous retention problem. If we are so overpaid why do we keep losing our most talented employees to other fire agencies for better pay and benefits? I challenge anyone to compare pay and benefits of federal firefighters to any local government or state fire agency in California. The results will be shocking.

    • an ole hotshot says:

      Thank you. I am second-generation wildland fire management specialist and am always dismayed at the comparison of what it is we did for so little for so many un-grateful.

  10. WORLDBFREE says:

    Thank you Mr. Berry. It was refreshing to read this. I get bashed by my wife, kids, and friends because I receive a pension and work for the gov.

    • Guest says:

      Refreshing? I agree his rhetoric was alright. But c’mon!! The man has had MONTHS to refute ALL of this and has not done so. And he walks in to testify with words??? What a dolt!!!

      • Guest says:

        Agreed. But coming to the table late seems to be an unfortunate trait of most of Obama’s appointees, not just Berry.

        Well, they’re late when it applies to defending Federal employees and the middle class, but right on time or even early when it comes to bailing out the financial firms and their megamillion-earning executives at our expense.

  11. Fed Peasant says:

    The Herritage Foundation probably has a list of endorsed contractors, to immediately take over jobs from federal workers. Probably the leaders, & backers, of the Herritage Foundation have ownership, in these contractor companies. How many federal workers are in John “THE WEEPER” Boehner’s congressional district back in Ohio? Does “THE WEEPER” have ownership that way?

  12. GUEST says:

    You can never hire the best and brightest while you have veterans preference and forced hiring of those who meet the minimum requirements.

    • Edward Barthlome says:

      Veteran’s preference does not move anyone to the head of the line and veterans should not be lumped into the category of “those who meet the minimun requirements”. There is a 5 pt and a 10 pt veterans preference. the points awarded depend on the situation–ie. is the veteran a purple heart recipient? Veterans and their families have sacrificed a great deal for this country and should get some benefit from that service. The veteran’s preference only adds points to the score. There is still a cert which comes out with the names of eligible candidates and the veteran’s preference is not a guarantee the vet will be hired. Guest’s post surmises that veterans are not among “the best and brightest”. As a veteran and an American citizen I resent that implication.

    • WORLDBFREE says:

      Many but not all vets bring intangibles such as character, integrity, honor, leadership, discipline, thankfulness etc. They may not be the “best and brightest by your standard but they do just as well as non vets many with the same traits. If your a federal employee I appreciate you.

    • an ole hotshot says:

      Until the agencies quit playing at social engineering and being focused on the PC version of the favor of the month, the best and brightest are not hired. Hire based of qualifications and the ability to do the job, not based on quota or who had their feelings hurt last.

    • Dbw61972 says:

      I am a civil service employee and I think the rules currently in place for the hiring quotas (based on veterans, race, sex, etc.) is causing the hiring of some not-so-qualified people. I do beleive we should take care of our veterans but just because they are veterans doesn’t mean they can perform at the level required. Sure, give a veteran extra points onthe application but make sure they are truely worth hiring.

    • Jarhead Fed says:

      As a disabled combat Vet of the Marine Corps..and after losing a kidney and having multiple surgeries on a shattered femur…I can rightfully say that I deserve the preference points that I get. My life is drastically different as a result of my service…and I believe it is fair to be recognized for that sacrifice. Give me back my kidney and my God-given hip joint so that it doesn’t hurt to stand for long periods or run and I’ll gladly give you my preference points. Until then, quit complaining…or you can also enlist in the Armed Forces. They’re always hiring. Then you can have your own points.