Federal Compensation: Too High, Too Low or About Right? Readers Offer Their Opinions

The federal salary war is not going away with debating experts throwing around statistics that reach opposite conclusions. What do readers think of their salary and compensation package? Is it too high, too low or about right? Should OPM conduct a study of the compensation package for federal employees that would involve objective participants from outside the federal government to eliminate controversy over federal pay? Here are the results.

Are federal employees paid too much or too little?

The controversy does not appear to be going away. The Office of Personnel Management is certainly aware of it and has defended its work that shows federal employees are underpaid by about 22%. In fact, as the year wears on, the agency seems to be getting more aggressive. Early in the summer,  the OPM director made a statement with an acknowledgment of a “credibility problem” and that he would be enlisting outside experts to resolve the dispute. “Everybody has their formula, and says, ‘My formula’s right, your formula’s wrong,’ ” he commented at a Senior Executives
Association conference. “If people of goodwill come together and are genuine about this, we ought to be able to craft a formula that has credibility everywhere.”

USA Today added fuel to the fire this year when it wrote: At a time when workers’ pay and benefits have stagnated, federal
employees’ average compensation has grown to more than double what
private sector workers earn.” With unemployment in the range of 10%, fear of a double-dip recession, stagnating private sector wages and a massive federal debt, the USA Today (and similar articles in the Wall Street Journal, Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, it isn’t surprising that there is, as Mr. Berry noted, a “credibility problem” with the federal statistics.

Also see, Federal vs. Private Pay: A Response to OPM Director John Berry which reads, in part: “Federal and private employees are apples and oranges because the former is dependent on the latter for its existence. In the natural world, this relationship is call parasitism. This is not a pejorative statement. Every dollar earned by a federal employee is one less dollar that a private sector employee earns. One can argue over a federal employee’s value to society, but one cannot argue that the perceived value doesn’t come at the expense of the private sector.”

More recently, however, it sounds like a change has occurred in OPM’s position. “Recent press stories regarding pay for Federal employees compared to private sector workers are unfair and untrue….Federal workers are not paid double the private sector. ”

And the outside experts may no longer have a role in creating credibility for the pay-setting process. OPM’s director was quoted in the Washington Post this week: “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, it may be no changes are needed”  and stated that “Data can be manipulated to make whatever point you want to make.”

And, while all organizations have their own agenda, OPM’s Sheldon Friedman, described in the Washington Post as “a salary expert who heads an OPM panel that reviews labor management issues of blue-collar federal worker” says that the data used in arriving at the 22% deficit are “the best we’re aware of” may not quell the debate. According to Leadership Directory, he has a non-career senior executive service appointment and, presumably, the same Sheldon Friedman who was an economist and research coordinator for the AFL-CIO, an organization which many would not consider an objective outside observer in determining appropriate salary levels.

With this background, what do federal employees think of their salary and compensation package? Should OPM conduct a study of the compensation package for federal employees that would involve objective participants from outside the federal government to eliminate controversy over federal pay.

We asked readers in a survey a few days ago to give their opinion. Here are the results:

1. How would you describe the salary and benefits package for federal employees?

Compensation package is about right: 52.6%

Compensation package is higher than it should be: 9.1%

Compensation package is lower than it should be: 34%

Undecided: 4.3%

2. Earlier this year, the director of OPM indicated the agency would conduct a study of the compensation package for federal employees that would involve objective participants from outside the federal government to eliminate controversy over federal pay. Would you support this approach in analyzing the federal compensation package?

yes: 50.2%

no: 35.6%

undecided: 14.2%

Here are comments from readers with regard to the first question:

  • We’re overpaid. Period.
  • Salary is too high for management employees only. I don’t know where
    they find their managers but most are paid way more than they are worth.
    Need to promote from within the workers who know the job.
  • I think it depends upon the position. I am a trial attorney and I took a
    40% pay cut to join the government. I am now paid less than I first
    year attorney at the law firm I left to work for the government. I was
    happy to make the move, however, because (a) I make enough money to meet
    my needs and (b) have much better work-life balance.
  • At the GS-12 and above levels, federal employees are overpaid and
    complacent in doing their jobs. High pay and no fear of losing their
    jobs makes for a highly inefficient federal workforce.
  • If the American public had to do without us or if enough of them could
    just see what we do on a daily basis maybe they’d begin to understand
    why it costs money to run the government. Nobody here is overpaid.
    Nobody in any office where I’ve ever worked for Uncle Sam is overpaid.
  • too many benefits, even considering the education level of SOME feds
    many are over paid, like staff and assistants. Job security is also
    guaranteed, unlike private industry. Retirement is golden.
  • HUD has way too many non-supervisory GS-13, GS-14 and GS-15s and is
    unwilling to down grade the positions to their appropriate pay level.
    The agency has allowed “upward mobility” to have gone wild resulting in
    too many people with questionable educational backgrounds in high
  • The people who always want to lower federal salaries are ones who
    believe in socialism and not capitalism. What they fail to realize is
    that many in the federal government have masters and doctorate degrees,
    who could earn more in the private sector if they wanted to, but chose
    to work for the federal government. Federal employee salaries become a
    target in every U.S. recession cycle.
  • It depends on which federal agency you look at. Look at HUD and you
    find people who can’t even read or write being paid a GS-12 or 13
    salary. You need to go door to door and look at what each agency does,
    who does it, and what they’re paid.
  • When I applied for a government job 23 years ago, I had heard they pay
    well and are fairly secure. Anybody could have applied for government
    service but many chose not to. Those are the ones who are complaining
    about this now. Let them say what they want. It comes down to, “Why
    didn’t you apply?” Just as I chose not to become a stock broker, they
    chose not to have a good paying, secure job.
  • Compensation package should be on the same level as our congressman.

Here are comments from readers on whether OPM should involve outside experts in comparing federal and private sector salary levels:

  • As a taxpayer and as a federal employee, I welcome the study.
  • OPM should
    look real hard at the number of employees centralized in the DC area
    (several hundred thousand) and reduce the total number and inflated
    grade levels in the DC area.
  • I would only agree if it is certain that the “Objective Participants” are clearly unbiased. This would be difficult.
  • An outside source is more than likely going to side with the public that Federal employees are compensated too much.
  • I don’t believe someone from outside the agency could possible understand the complexities we go though just to get the job done
  • That will only increase controversy by making the process public and
    subject to more public criticism! Haven’t we learned ANYTHING?
  • Let’s get reason & sanity back in Fed compensation.
  • The
    federal compensation needs to be compared to comparable positions in the
    private sector. I suspect the president of a Fortune 500 operating
    division makes significantly more than an IRS Industry Director.
  • It isn’t any good at the present time, change may be better.
  • OPM is right on target. Need to compensate for variables in location and career field as well as business stock incentives.
  • If it was done fairly, forthrightly and with objectivity, OK. If done
    just to justify cutting the wages or compensation packages, then “no”.
    Trust factor is low.
  • We study the heck out of everything. People are waiting in line to work
    for the Gov – job security and automatic pay increases. Why spend more
    money for another study!?
  • Data can
    be skewed to portray something in favor or against a particular subject.
    Federal employees do the work of protecting and serving the American
    public. Many could be making much more money in the private sector but
    they do the job of being a public servant because they are dedicated to
    the mission of the agency they work for. These discussions only
    contribute to create negative feedback from people that don’t truly
    understand the work that federal employees do.
  • If unbiased study…if even possible, everything is so political and
    partisan these days… and the government is portrayed as a large,
    cumbersome machine. People don’t seem to recognize and appreciate all
    the benefits they receive from government…

Our thanks to all readers who took the time to respond to our latest survey and a special thanks to those who took the time to send in their written comments.

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. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47