Bashing Federal Workers Is Bashing The Middle Class

Isaiah J. Poole

On Wednesday the House voted to extend a two-year federal worker pay freeze an additional year. These workers, instead of getting a raise at the end of 2012, will have to wait until the end of 2013. (The House vote and our analysis is posted on our sister site, TheMiddleClass.org.)

The right-wing blogosphere is positively giddy about this, especially in the wake of a Congressional Budget Office study Monday that said that, yes, as a whole federal employees do get somewhat better pay and benefits than many of their private sector counterparts. “Federal Workers Overpaid, and CBO Agrees,” reads the Heritage Foundation’s blog, The Foundry. “Federal Workers Earning More Than Those Paying Their Salaries,” harrumphs Red State.

The right wants the rest of us to join the gripe session: “Look at all of those overpaid federal bureaucrats,” they say.

Well, let’s look at all of those federal workers—and what’s been happening to the rest of the workforce.

If you only have a high school diploma or perhaps a community college education, a federal government job is indeed a good deal, where you can earn significantly higher wages and benefits than you can in the private sector. Your wages will on average be 21 percent higher and benefits package worth on average 72 percent more. But those with advanced degrees are more likely to have higher total earnings in the private sector; on average workers with doctorates only receive 2 percent more in total compensation, only because a richer benefit packages help offset lower wages.

The CBO study adds, by the way, that “much of the higher benefit cost incurred by the federal
government stems from differences in retirement benefits,” with many federal workers receiving defined-benefit retirement plans and retirees receiving health coverage, benefits now rare in the private sector.

It’s worth noting what these employees are doing. One chart in the CBO report reminds us that more than a third of the federal workforce is employed by the Defense Department. Add the Department of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and the Justice Department, and that works out to about 63 percent of the federal workforce. Many of these employees are taking on responsibilities that require a higher level of skill than what is required in the private sector; it’s no wonder that a higher percentage of the federal workforce is comprised of people with advanced degrees than the private sector as a whole; and correspondingly a much lower percentage of the federal workforce is comprised of people with only a high school diploma.

The bottom line is that there is often good reason for some federal workers to earn more than some of us who pay their salaries.

But the even more important point is that those of us who pay their salaries should be doing better.

The Commerce Department reported last month that average hourly earnings, adjusted for inflation and seasonal factors, fell 0.9 percent from December 2010 to December 2011. That’s a consequence of private sector workers cutting wages, or workers being forced into jobs that pay less than the jobs they lost. The total share of national income devoted to wages and salaries, historically above 50 percent, fell to 49.6 percent in the first quarter of 2011 even as corporate profits rose, as Floyd Norris of The New York Times noted in an August 2011 article. Meanwhile, as Sam Pizzigati notes, citing Congressional Budget Office research, the share of the national income going to the top 1 percent increased from 8 percent in 1979 to 17 percent in 2007.

Last year the Commerce Department published a survey of private-sector employee benefits that showed that 36 percent of private sector workers did not have access to a retirement plan, 31 percent did not have access to a work health insurance plan, and 40 percent did not have paid sick leave.

The success that corporations and conservatives have had in weakening unions, and thus disempowering workers, has had a devastating effect on the wages and benefits of private sector workers, as labor writer James Parks reported, citing a National Sociological Review study. The response from the right has been calls to push down wages even further, by eliminating minimum wage laws and generally cheerleading downward the pressure on wages that comes with a race with China and other Asian industrial countries to the bottom.

That’s why private sector workers ought not be aligning themselves with the resent-the-federal-worker crowd. That crowd is not interested in you doing better. They are supporting the policies that are causing all workers to be worse off. What federal workers get in pay and benefits—and thus in overall income security—should be the standard for what all workers should be fighting to receive. Allowing conservatives to get us caught in their crabs-in-a-barrel game will only mean we’ll all be at the bottom of the barrel.

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