DorobekINSIDER: Why Brown’s ‘feds make double the private sector’ comparison is not fully accurate

Wednesday - 2/3/2010, 12:40pm EST

On Monday, the DorobekINSIDER pointed you comments made by Senator elect Scott Brown (R-MA) where he said that feds made double the private sector.

Read the full comments here, but the relevant portion:

We need to put a freeze on federal hires and federal raises because, as you know, federal employees are making twice as much as their private counterparts.

Brown and Walters

Photo: ABC News

I have been asked, “How true are Brown’s stats?”

As I noted previously, I believe Brown is pulling from a December story in USAToday headlined, For feds, more get 6-figure salaries: Average pay $30,000 over private sector.

And we wanted to find out how accurate those data are. The long and short of it: They are accurate on their face, but… it isn’t necessarily a fair comparison.

Yesterday on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, we spoke to Federal News Radio senior correspondent Mike Causey about this issue. Hear the entire conversation here.

But Causey tells us that technically what Senator elect Brown says is accurate. But as we all know, nothing lies like numbers — and it is not really a fair comparison for several reasons.

First: What’s an average? The federal government doesn’t employ many fast food workers, for example, or “greeters” at Target. To the contrary, the federal government employs scores very highly skilled workers — scientists, IT workers, attorneys, doctors. And if you compare what those feds are paid compared to what they could get in the private sector, it generally doesn’t compare.

There are other factors, of course. Federal employment is, by and large, very stable work — you don’t have to worry about the federal government filing for bankruptcy and having ones job disappear. Feds also have a pension plan and one of the best retirement plans anywhere in the Thrift Savings Plan.

The National Treasury Employees Union’s Colleen M. Kelley wrote an open letter to Senator elect Brown. (Hat tip to WP’s Federal Eye blogger Ed O’Hare.)

I wanted to set the record straight regarding your recent comments on “This Week” on ABC that federal employees earn twice as much as those who work in the private sector.

Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, the present gap between public and private sector workers is some 26 percent—in favor of the private sector. A law was passed in 1990—the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act (FEPCA)—to close that gap between public and private sector pay in stages. It has not, however, been implemented as intended. The disparity identified more than a decade ago, between federal employees and their private sector counterparts, still exists.

Comparing salaries of federal employees and private sector employees is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The only appropriate way to make a fair pay comparison is to compare similar jobs with one another. The federal workforce is a white collar, highly-educated workforce, consisting of such professionals as doctors, attorneys and scientists in virtually every discipline.

The White House took note of the educational level of the federal workforce, pointing out in its budget blueprint that 20 percent of federal employees hold either a master’s or professional degree, or a doctorate. This contrasts with 13 percent in the private sector. Overall, 51 percent of federal employees hold at least a college degree compared to 35 percent in the private sector.

It is clear that a great many federal employees who could make more money—and quite possibly, much more money—in the private sector choose public service instead.

I hope as you become more familiar with the efforts of the men and women of the federal workforce, you will begin to see the direct connection between their day-to-day contributions to our nation and the well-being of the American public they serve so diligently.

Finally, the WSJ editorial page, which generally leans right, has an editorial today The Public-Union Ascendancy.

It’s now official: In 2009 the number of unionized workers who work for the government surpassed those in the private economy for the first time. This milestone explains a lot about modern American politics, in particular the paradox that union clout with Democrats has increased even as fewer workers belong to unions overall