OPM trying to correct fed salary facts

Friday - 8/13/2010, 7:35pm EDT

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Office of Personnel Management says federal employees on average make 22 percent less in salary than their private sector counterparts doing similar jobs.

Sheldon Friedman, the chairman of the Federal Prevailing Rate Advisory Committee, says the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that when federal and non-federal occupations are compared by level of work and geographic distribution, the private sector makes more money. Friedman said these comparisons only are for salary and not benefits because data doesn't exist to compare federal and non-federal benefits.

"I have been reading a lot in the paper about federal pay and what I've been reading, a lot of it I've found very misleading I'm sorry to say," Friedman said during a telephone press briefing. "Reports that federal workers are paid on average much more than non-federal workers are literally true but wildly inaccurate in terms of any useful conveyance of information. The workforce of the federal government is very different from the non-federal workforce."

He pointed to the largest occupational groups in the private sector are retails sales and cashiers, which tend to be very low paid jobs, and of which the federal government employees few if any.

And when you look at occupations, such as attorneys, engineers, physicians and technology specialists, the government tends to employ a lot of these workers, but they are well compensated in the private sector too.

A fact sheet issued by OPM states that a person who works in the contracting field for the federal government, a GS-11, makes on average $18,000 less than someone who works in a similar job in the private sector. OPM also pointed out that an attorney working as a GS-13 in government makes almost $100,000 less than an attorney working in the private sector.

"One piece of new analysis we did was we did take a more detailed look at the National Compensation Survey BLS did to look at actual job and work level matches," Friedman said. "We pulled that out in more details for lot of relative occupations. Not surprisingly, we reproduced the 22 percent gap."

The gap, however, only is in straight salary.

Friedman said BLS, or anyone else for that matter, doesn't analyze benefits.

"Certainly it is true on average the benefits in the federal government are superior to the average for the private sector workforce, but that workforce include many millions who probably have no benefits whatsoever," said Friedman. "If you are comparing an engineer at a GS-12 or 13 in the federal government with their counterpart with Boeing or any other private company, I would guess the benefits aren't that different. But we really don't know."

Friedman said several articles, the most recent in the USA Today, are misleading because they are not doing fair comparisons. He said BLS clearly states that is survey is not appropriate for comparing federal and non-federal workers because the occupation statistics survey doesn't measure level of work.

"If you take two attorneys, and one attorney draws up wills and the second one litigates multi-million dollar lawsuits, the second attorney gets a lot more pay than the first," he said. "If you don't take the level of work into account, you get misleading results."

OPM Director John Berry over the past six months has strongly defended federal pay rates. Federal employees' pay has come under attack by lawmakers and private sector groups and news organizations.

He said in June that he requested help to finally answer this question from BLS, the Office of Management and Budget and other non-governmental experts.

Friedman or OPM spokeswoman Sedelta Verble could not provide an update on that initiative.

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