Average Federal Salary: $83,679 and Lowest Average Pay Increase in 10 Years

By on March 25, 2012 in Human Resources

Federal employee pay is always a source of interest…and controversy.

A case in point: We recently ran an article with a chart showing federal vs. private sector pay. Numerous readers submitted comments. Among the comments were those that read something like this: “Why didn’t you include any data past 2008?” And, occasionally, someone would infer we were trying to hide data favorable to federal workers by not including data for the last two years.

So, for those who were asking these and similar questions, we have done the additional research to provide additional data. We will leave it to each reader to determine whether the federal salary levels are too high, too low or just about right after reviewing the available information.

Salary Data from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

The underlying data is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), part of the Department of Commerce. When looking at federal pay, you will find that OPM compiles one set of statistics, BEA has another and the Federal Salary Council apparently uses different data or at least uses some of the data to reach its own conclusions.

As one reader observed in our recent article, people often interpret data based on what is in their own economic interest. In general, those that disagree with the data presented will often attack the credibility of the messenger or the organization reporting the information, often while not presenting any other arguments. With that in mind, here are the data showing private sector vs. federal pay based on data from the BEA and as brought to light by Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute. Mr. Edwards has been compiling and analyzing pay data from the BEA for a number of years and occasionally reports the BEA results in a separate report and analysis such as this report on federal pay issued in February 2012. For those who may want more information or want to look at the raw government data, check out Tables 6.2D, 6.3D, and 6.5D on the BEA website which is the data used by Mr. Edwards for his analysis.

Lowest Federal Pay Increase in 10 Years

For those who may be wondering why we did not include data from 2011, it is not yet available. However, according to an analysis by USA Today, despite the federal employee pay freeze, federal salaries still went up faster than salaries in the private sector although the increase in federal pay was the lowest it has been in 10 years. “Federal pay rose an average of 1.3% for the budget year that ended Sept. 30, according to newly released federal data. By comparison, the wages of private workers rose 1.2% during the period, the same rate as state and local government pay growth….”

How did federal pay go up despite a pay freeze? Salaries did go up for some federal employees as within-grade increases and promotions were not frozen. Some readers have also reported that in their agencies some jobs have been reclassified with the result that people receive higher pay as a result of the reclassification.

Average Federal Salary and Average Compensation Including Benefits

According to BEA data, the average federal employee salary in 2010 was $83,679 and $51,986 for the average private sector salary.

Average Federal Salary: 2000 - 2010

When benefits are added in, the average compensation for each federal employee comes to $126,141. For private sector workers, the average compensation package, including benefits, was $62,757 for the same year.

Total Compensation: 2000 - 2010

A number of frequent observations are submitted by readers on articles regarding federal pay. One of the most common is that the federal government employs people with different skill sets so comparing average pay with the private sector is not meaningful.

Cato analyst Chris Edwards addressed that issue in his report.

“…[T]he federal workforce has always had a heavy contingent of skilled professionals such as lawyers. So that is not new, and thus it cannot explain the dramatically faster growth in federal compensation compared to private compensation….In 2000, the average federal worker earned 66 percent more in total compensation than the average private-sector worker. By 2009, that ratio had risen to 102 percent.

There are several apparent reasons for the rapid rise in federal employee salaries. As we have pointed out in earlier articles (See Highly Paid Federal Administrative Positions: Where Are They and How Much Do They Make?) many federal employees are now outside of the general schedule pay system and their agency budgets are often derived from fees they collect from regulated industries. Employees in these agencies often have higher salaries than employees in the same job classification for other agencies. That contributes to a higher overall salary level.

Also, the Veterans Administration (VA) is now paying higher salaries to the doctors that it hires to work for the agency. It is not a coincidence that, when reviewing individual salary levels for federal employees, and sorting the data from the highest salary to the lowest, most of the highest pay rates are going to doctors working for the VA. USA Today reports that pay for doctors in this agency has now doubled to an average $200,604 in 2011.

Politics also plays a role. Federal employee salaries have climbed faster than inflation so far in the 21st century. One reason is that the administration of President Bush supported large pay increases for military personnel to improve recruiting and retention in the military. Lobbying for “pay parity” emanated from federal employee unions and Congressional representatives with large numbers of federal employees was successful. In effect, federal civilian employees also gained hefty salary increases as an indirect result of America’s combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. (See Patriotism, Pay, and Parity) In effect, some of the largest pay increases for federal employees occurred under the Bush administration from 2000 – 2008.

And, as most readers know, the Federal Salary Council has also pushed large salary increases for federal employees each year; that is, they have pushed for much larger salary increases than employees have received. The Salary Council has a very large union component and agencies that often are philosophically aligned with union goals and objectives so there is skepticism outside of the federal community regarding the accuracy of these figures. As noted by Edwards’ analysis:

“The government’s Federal Salary Council releases an annual memo reporting on the size of the supposed pay gap, which in 2009 was 26 percent. The gap is supposed to be determined based on job-to-job comparisons, but the results rest of calculations that are non-transparent and subject to a large amount of statistical modeling….The official pay gap was 22 percent in 2001 and 26 percent in 2009….Yet the BEA data show that average federal salaries rose 58 percent between 2000 and 2009, which was much faster than the 30 percent increase in the private sector. Since the BEA data are authoritative, there must be something wrong with the official pay gap methodology.”

Congressional representatives in areas surrounding Washington, DC and other large concentrations of federal employees want to provide higher benefits for their constituents and federal employees are a powerful interest group and effective lobbyists. Whether justified or not, the Federal Salary Council data has undoubtedly influenced some Congressional deliberations to the benefit of the federal workforce.

Job-to-Job Comparison

Many readers often comment that if the same or similar jobs are compared, federal workers make less than their private sector counterparts. No doubt, that is true in some cases. However, an analysis by USA Today found:

“Federal employees earn higher average salaries than private-sector workers in more than eight out of 10 occupations….Accountants, nurses, chemists, surveyors, cooks, clerks and janitors are among the wide range of jobs that get paid more on average in the federal government than in the private sector.”

The discrepancy gets wider when benefits are included. In 2010, the average federal employee benefit package was worth $42,462. For private sector workers, the average benefits package was worth $10,771 according to BEA data.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 216 occupations covering 1.1 million federal workers exist in both the federal government and the private sector. An additional 124 federal occupations covering 750,000 employees such as  air-traffic controllers and  tax collectors, do not have equivalent jobs in the private sector.

Additional information on federal salaries versus the private sector was provided by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in a recent report. This CBO study concluded:

  • Federal civilian workers with no more than a high school education earned about 21 percent more, on average, than similar workers in the private sector.
  • Workers whose highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree earned roughly the same hourly wages, on average, in both the federal government and the private sector.
  • Federal workers with a professional degree or doctorate earned about 23 percent less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts.

In other words, the federal government often pays salaries that are higher than the private sector at the lower end of the skill levels required and often pays lower salaries than the private sector when more complex skills are required.

Summary

Without a doubt, the controversy regarding federal pay levels will go on. Many in Congress will use the data to justify cutting federal pay and benefits. The Federal Salary Council will probably continue to assert federal employees are underpaid. There is no evidence that the Office of Personnel Management will make an effort to resolve the continuing controversy anytime in the immediate future.

The data do show that many in the federal government make a decent salary and have better benefits than many workers have in the private sector. And, no doubt, many federal employees, particularly at the higher skills levels, would make a higher salary in the private sector.

We have provided the data and some of the reasons for the controversy. Feel free to reach your own conclusions and comment as you see fit.

© 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 on federal human resources.

202 Replies

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  1. fredthefed says:

    I would love to have a 58% higher salary as stated in your article, however, if one looks at the GS scale  from 2000-2009 for the Rest of US you will see an increase of 35%, if you look at the period 2002-2012 it is a massive 27%.  Do you think our health insurance premiums outpaced that?  You bet!  What happened to common sense when they determine their figures?  

  2. grey1234 says:

    Perhaps whoever put this article together should average by agency. As a claims rep in a Social security field office (one of 1300 field offices) I earned $58000 in 2010 as a GS 11 after 42 years of service.  Believe me, in my office of 22 employees only three earned at or over $83697.  This include the operation supervisor, the asst manager and the manager.  Social security Adm is a mid sized agency-certainly doesnt compare to military, DOD or TSP.  Seems to me this “Average Federal Salary: $83,679 and Lowest Average Pay” is weighted.  Hmm! why does the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis want to make civil service employees look bad to Congress, the President and more importantly to the general public?

  3. Steven says:

    Seems like you have reached your conclusion Ralph, we are “overpaid”.  Thanks for “sticking up for Ralph”.  With friends like these……..

  4. Tired of Lies says:

    The “Average Federal Salary: $83,679 and Lowest Average Pay” is not a true, reasonable, or rational reflection of federal and postal salaries.  To begin with, “lumping” everyone’s salaries for a comparison and then averaging the figures provides an unrealistic “picture” to the general public:  a GS-02 cannot and should not be compared to a Senior Executive Service (SES) employee, higher GS graded employees, Defense, and/or specialized services.  Hopefully legal citizens in this country will recognize what is being done to discredit those who are devoted employees.  Federal and postal workers work diligently for every penny they make; many are highly educated and provide special services unlike those in the public sector.  Whoever started singling out federal and postal salaries are not showing “the truth”.  A person who has never had higher ambitions than high school or below, compared to a highly-motivated highly-educated individual who strives to be the best he can be is comparing apples and oranges.  Let’s applaud our specialized federal and postal employees; they deserve to be recognized as the hard-working people they are!  They are patriots and defend this nation again terrorists and “inside” attacks within this country’s borders and beyond.  There are no federal and postal employees being paid millions of dollars as a CEO compared to the private sector; why haven’t these incomes been included in this so-called “comparison” of incomes?  The current administration has intentionally discredited federal and postal employees when they should be praised for the jobs they are performing and paid accordingly!  God bless those who are dedicated devoted patriots, carrying out America’s best interests and providing safety within our boundaries.   ~

  5. Air13148 says:

    I’m a maxed out Letter Carrier with USPS and make just under $57,000 a year.  I make less than my civilian counter part UPS drivers.  Nuff said.

  6. The Master says:

    I just wish Congress would start paying accountants the same as the private sector. I could use the raise.

  7. grannybunny says:

    The figures are skewed because of the high compensation of VA doctors.  The highest paid doctors in the private sector are self-employed, and their compensation is not included in the comparisons, so — again — we’re not looking at “apples to apples” comparisons.

    • guestwo says:

      An apple a day keeps the doctor away??  So you work in the VA system.  A lot of doctors in the private system are in a group.  How they pool expenses and salary/compensation I have no idea!

  8. Scuba says:

    I agree with peter_5959. Let’s not forget with the pay freeze and lack of opportunity and promotion GS 7/9’s are being taken advantage of and doing the work of GS11/12’s.  Oh yes, we also possess college degrees and even come from the corporate world where we are and continue to be work horses due to our work ethic.  Shame on you is right. How about Federal times write about the real world of Federal Employees. I am getting tired of this 1% crap.  Federal employees who are in excepted service positions get the shaft. There is no career ladder promotions and there is no interchangeable agreements with all agencies. If you want a differnt job in Federal service, you have to apply under the general public. Its as if your federal work records means nothing. Shame shame and more shame.

  9. Str8Shot says:

    It is interesting that the one comparison that is not done is the one that would be easiest to construct.  No study has compared the cost of federal employees to the cost of private contractors performing government functions or functions that support government operations.  I don’t mean what the workers earn, I mean the TOTAL cost to include admin and overhead.  I know that 10 years ago a friend of mine retired and was hired back as a contractor.  At the time, I was a GS -9 making around 43K.  The contractor who hired my retired friend was paid slightly over 112K for one FTE for one man-year.  Even with all of my benefits, my total cost of employement to the taxpayers never approximated the cost we paid for the contractor.  That is the same situation today…but it won’t ever make the news……

  10. CaptBuck says:

    I guess Uncle Sam is supposed to join the “race to the bottom” in the Walmartization of compensation of the American worker. As the private sector dumps.pensions and healthcare the Government is supposed follow suit? What is this Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” where paying employees poverty wages to maximize corporate profits is the American way?

  11. Ddj1971 says:

    Stop worrying about my measly pay and start worrying about the crooks in Congress getting rich off the backs of the working poor/middle class!!!  This is rediculous already – Congress men & women giving away hundreds of thousands to their family while steady trying to take my hard earned pay & benefits.  Enoughs enough!!!!

  12. Whatever! says:

    My daughter just attended a conference and Facebook was there.  They give free food, dry cleaning, hefty salaries and 3 weeks (21 days) vacation to start.  There are still decent companies to work for that are thriving.

  13. StatsareBUNK says:

    A wise lawyer once told me, when evidence is in your favor, you argue evidence.  When law is in your favor, you argue law.  When neither are in your favor, you argue statistics.  And there we have it.  You can make statistics work for you by tweaking numbers.  Its a numbers game.

  14. Bjshum says:

    mr Smith, you are ignorant of the facts!  I am a GS 11, Step 7, with 30 years service.  I currently make $68,000 a year.  If you are going to report something, GET THE FACTS!  Get your self out of Washington DC and look at the real numbers!  I am sick of this crap!  The Dumocrats and Repuglicans blow all the money and put us in a hole that we can never recover and it’s the government worker fault!  All of Congress needs to be fired including Obama for this piece of crap legislation called ObamaCare!

    • AppleFanboy78 says:

      So, let me see if I have this correct – you make $68,000 a year, therefore, the average salary of all federal employees is at most $68,000 a year? When did you become the only federal employee in the country? 

      Come on sir, you can come up with a better argument than that. Don’t say that because your annual salary is less than the average that it is a statistical impossibility for the average to be higher than yours; that just makes you sound silly. Sound, rational arguments are the only thing that will help us make our case in this debate, not silly, emotional rants where we shoot the messenger.

  15. Aaron D says:

    Can you please explain to me how decisions made on this “average” salary can possibly be fair to so many of us that make half and less than half this $83k.  Across the board decisions against federal employees based on this “average salary” are just plain wrong and severely harm those of us not in that category.  Check out these GS grades of 8 and below – many many people fall into that category.  Are you averaging salaries with Congress? We all know what they make.

  16. HR Manager (Retired) says:

    “The underlying data is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), part of the Department of Commerce. When looking at federal pay, you will find that OPM compiles one set of statistics, BEA has another and the Federal Salary Council apparently uses different data or at least uses some of the data to reach its own conclusions.”  This is why there is no accurate figure on the “average” Fed’l salary.  By the way, the same can be said of the “average” non-Fed’l salary as each company, large or same, has its own way of determining its payroll.  Interestingly even defining “payroll” is not as easy as most individuals, especially those  running for  president, want to make the general public believe.

  17. Manage This! says:

    My shortest post ever – VOTE NONE OF THE ABOVE – make these congressional morons realize that we have had enough.  Break the voting system and expose the whole thing for what it is – a bought and paid for Government position intended to benefit a few and punish the rest.

  18. ch says:

    There was a time when Congress served its people. America would try to make life better for all…even each member of Congress for their constituents (no more–its is all for them personally & individually –to make a headline, to enable them to make more money for them in the future as media attention means more money for each one down the road).

    Destroying America’s will and belief in every American having an opportunity to receive better salaries, better benefits, better education and be rewarded for it is replaced by a focus on tearing down the American worker, their salaries, their benefits, their chance for a college education and good job… so everyone can get less. Their theme is Don’t strive to do better –Congress will punish you for that as an American worker. Now the mandate is to force all Americans to make less, have no benefits. The first step is the present Congressional daily beatings given to the Federal Worker. The Congressional hatred is for the Federal worker. .who works for them, as highly skilled Doctors, lawyers (whoops most of Congress are lawyers & whoops Doc too), highly educated professional planners, researchers, science specialists, teachers, law officials, etc. etc. And, the Federal workforce are Congressional constituents and voters (Oh my). Watch out private sector workers–you are next.

    Instead of trying to drag down the American worker to get less –because the other guy gets less –is  hypocritical and against the reason America began in the first place.

    I do not think that is what our Country’s Fathers had in mind for this Nation of ours.

  19. Cynthia Bruce says:

    Ralph,
    Not sure where you get your facts? Iv’e worked for the Federal Government for 12 years and I don’t even make half, of what you say is the average wage. I think you are looking at the top 1% in the federal sector. Most Federal employees are GS 11 and under.

    • Specialist says:

      I’ve never been to China but I’m pretty sure it exists. My point being, of course, that just because you personally don’t make or know anybody who is paid the average federal salary doesn’t mean that there aren’t many people out there who make that or higher. I’m not thrilled to see these figures either, but shooting the messenger while simultaneously denying reality because of our own myopic viewpoints isn’t going to help the situation; frankly, it makes us sound naive, childish and entitled, none of which are traits that will make the general public want to give us the support we’d like in this debate.

  20. pret59 says:

    I think you should also do a comparison of 3 groups of workers for the past 30
    years:  the top .1% , the top 1%, and federal workers.  Many in Congress want to
    continue this lopsided trend over the last 30 years toward redistributing the
    wealth of this country to those in the top income brackets. The Congressional
    attack on federal workers is simply a diversion away from this great migration
    of income to the most wealthy in this country.  Perhaps it is because the
    federal workforce is one of the last bastions of fairness and equality left in this
    country and key Members of Congress will not be satisfied until they destroy
    whatever gains the middle class has made over the 20th century!

  21. John Al Trinidad says:

    I would like to address this quote because it’s very misleading.

    “Federal civilian workers with no more than a high school education earned about 21 percent more, on average, than similar workers in the private sector.”
        
    This is very easy to debunk really. First of all, the government doesn’t usually hire kids that just graduated from high school. The reason you have government employees with high school diplomas is because a good majority of them are military veterans. They may not have the degree, but they sure as hell have the job experience and the knowledge. You see, when you join the military, they send you to school to learn your job, but it doesn’t mean that you get a degree in that field. A majority of all enlisted veterans fall into this category. They have the knowledge and experience, but usually, not the college degree. It makes sense too, I mean, it’s really difficult to pursue a college degree when you are always deployed or when you are on “ready to deploy” status.  

  22. John Al Trinidad says:

    Lol. I started laughing when the referenced articles from the link mentioned “USA Today” and “CATO Institute”. When they start referencing data from other sources that aren’t tilted to their agenda, then they might convince me.

    Also, what’s up with that “quit rate” BS? Really? Quit Rate? And it’s very low in the public side? One of the main draw to get in a public sector job is to get a paycut in exchange for great benefits… which include a reasonable retirement fund. Of course the quit rate is going to be low. In fact, it should be like that for most professional jobs.

  23. Pamela Alexander says:

    I have worked for the federal government for 25 years.  This article is absolutely RIDICULOUS!!!  Leaving the impresssion that the average federal employee makes $82,000+/ year and over $124,000/ year after benefits is totally irresponsible and adds nothing but hyperbole to the discussion.  You know better than this!!!

  24. AppleFanboy78 says:

    Remember everyone, this is an average. Let’s go back to our fourth grade math… An average means that some will make more than the average and some will make less. So while I may not know anybody in my workplace who makes the average, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others in the country who make that much or even more. Try to look at it objectively and keep your own self interest from clouding your judgment. 

  25. Honeybee60 says:

    This is shocking because my daughter works for the government and earns $42,000 per year and has a son in college! 

  26. gretalove says:

    Really have a hard time buying this average fed. pay BS. I’ve worked for the gov. for 11 yrs. and my wage is bargained by my union. I make around $50,000 a yr.  I work in a dangerous environment and am sure that those in the private sector who do the same work make more or close to what I do. Ironically, my wage is based on an average from several other gov. agencies who did get their raises where as my agency denied ours when it was in our Union contract. Our attorney is all over it but the crap that they are trying is ridiculous. I do agreee that the gov. is top heavy and that’s where the cuts should be. Would be interesting to see the average if some of the unecessary upper mangement jobs were cut.

    • RicknATL says:

      You make some good points, in that the government is far too top heavy with do nothing managers, who contribuation nothing at all to the overall productivity of an agency.  Add that there are administrative support personnel without college degrees who make as much, if not more than those who are degreed professionals, and one can see how average data can easily be manipulated. That is where the waste is, with management and overpaid support personnel. Not with the degreed professionals who do the work, day in and day out.

      • Exfed says:

        http://www.govexec.com/defense…      

        Interesting read for all those who think the govt is so great and the best place to work. The agency cited here ranks the lowest of the low and people are leaving in droves. Maybe if Management knew what their jobs ARE and actually practice leadership, knowledge, and respect for their employees maybe all these crappy stories would not keep coming out.  Better yet scrap the whole deal and start all over.

      • guestwo says:

        Second that response.  “That is where the waste is, with management and overpaid support personnel.”

      • Exfed says:

        Every GS9 and below should be able to grade the people who supposedly supervise them and then have THAT info posted to one of these so called stories. Look at the DHS report that came out last week and see how pitiful management is rated. Get rid of most of them and perhaps employees would have better things to write about. They s/b ashamed and somebody needs to start weeding out all the incompetents.

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