As many readers know, it is easy to quickly find federal employees’ salaries by name or other criteria online.
Comments from our readers have often indicated that they were surprised that the names and salaries of individual federal employees were public information. Based on the nature of the comments, some of these readers were unaware the information has traditionally been considered public information.
Why Are Individual Federal Employees’ Salaries Public Information?
Here is how the release of the names and salaries of many federal employees have evolved based on press reports and lawsuits on the issue.
The current policy of releasing names and salary information started in 2005. In that year, the Bush administration started to withhold this information for about 900,000 federal civilian employees “breaking a tradition of openness that began in 1816” according to a lawsuit filed by a group at Syracuse University under the Freedom of Information Act. The group argued that “Citizens have a right to know who is working for the government” and the new policy changed that policy.
The federal government began publicly naming its employees, their job category, salary and workplace in 1816. The first entry in the 1816 version of the Federal Register was James Madison. He was identified as president of the United States at a salary of $25,000 and that his birthplace was in Virginia. The second entry was Secretary of State James Monroe and noted his salary of $5,000.
It wasn’t just political leaders who were listed. According to an article in the Washington Post, Treasury Department messenger John Connell was from Maryland and worked in Washington for the federal government at a salary of $410 a year, and another Marylander, Richard H. Briscoe, worked for the Comptroller’s Office clerk for $1,000 a year.
Since 1989, the Syracuse group, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse or TRAC, had been posting an Internet database with the names, work locations, salaries and job categories of the several million federal civilian workers except those in some law enforcement agencies. The data were used by reporters and government watchdog groups to monitor government policies and to try to detect waste or abuse in the federal system. TRAC provided the information to the public for those who paid a subscription fee.
OPM’s Role in Making Federal Employee Salary Data Public
OPM broke the precedent of this long standing policy when it stopped providing the complete list of data in 2003. Since 2003, OPM withheld all records of civilian employees of the Defense Department as well as the name and duty locations of another 150,000 other civilian workers according to the lawsuit that was filed. The other federal employees worked in 650 occupations at 250 different agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, the National Park Service and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
OPM argued in court that employees in specific occupations were “more vulnerable and likely to be exposed to harassment and unwarranted attention as a direct result of their work, whether it be to further criminal purposes or merely to vent misplaced frustrations.” OPM also concluded that employees in specific occupations were “more vulnerable and likely to be exposed to harassment and unwarranted attention as a direct result of their work, whether it be to further criminal purposes or merely to vent misplaced frustrations.”
In 2007, a federal court judge ruled the federal government could legally withhold the names, salaries and positions of more than 900,000 federal employees based on national security concerns and concerns about the privacy rights of the employees whose information had been redacted. The reaction of TRAC at that time was, “They waved the terrorism flag and the judge bought it.”
But, in effect, while OPM was free to withhold data on a number of federal employees, the information is still available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act for the remaining federal employees. A similar decision was issued by the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in 2012.
So, for those who were wondering why individual salary information is available, it is not a new policy and actually much more restricted than it was for most of the past two centuries. Individual federal employee salary data posted online are released by OPM and other agencies but does not include the information redacted by these agencies based on the decision of the federal courts.