The American labor force has shriveled to a size not seen since the malaise of the Carter administration, Congress is debating whether to extend unemployment benefits beyond 99 weeks, and Obamacare is driving the workforce to even smaller levels. So naturally, President Obama’s budget bemoans the sorrowful plight of the federal workers.
In today’s Washington Post Federal Diary, Joe Davidson reveals some of the content of President Obama’s budget, specifically the chapter called “Improving the Federal Workforce.” Let’s look at some of the talking points.
Taking into account both the recent pay freezes and the changes in retirement contributions, earnings for new Federal employees have fallen 10 percentage points relative to the private sector between 2009 and 2014.
Naturally you can only compare the compensation between two groups of people who are actually being compensated. Factor in the chronically unemployed struggling to find work in the private sector and the picture changes dramatically. The Federal workforce seldom contracts by any means other than attrition, while private sector workers frequently face layoffs when their services are no longer of use to their employers. The people who would be the recipients of unemployment checks beyond 99 weeks are not Federal workers put on the street by draconian budget cuts. They are private
It’s also important to point out that “government pay freeze” is a misnomer. Individual Federal employees are still eligible to receive step increases even under a pay “freeze.” The salary rate of each step may stay static, but employees can still move up to higher salary levels based on their seniority. The administration would like you to believe that every Federal employee is languishing for years without any increase in pay. That’s simply not happening for most Federal employees.
Increases in the educational levels of federal employees ‘suggest that pay should have increased faster in the Federal workforce than in the private sector.’
Pay should increase with the value of the employee, but educational levels do not automatically increase someone’s value to an organization. The nature and utility of that education determines the value. Also consider that the education levels of many Federal employees is increasing at the expense of the taxpayer as employees are often reimbursed for continuing education. Nobody deserves higher pay for having more education. Often there is a correlation between education and pay but one does not always drive the other.
The partial shutdown in October ‘significantly impacted the Federal government’s role as an employer. Job stability and a sense of mission have typically been advantages of working in the Federal sector, but increases in political acrimony may be leading to a deterioration of those advantages.’
This is utter nonsense. The partial shutdown in October amounted to a paid vacation for most Federal employees. Many Federal employees even double-dipped by collecting unemployment during the shutdown and then getting paid retroactively (as happens with most shutdowns). How much more stable can your job be if you get back pay on the rare occasions you get temporarily furloughed? Job stability in the Federal government is virtually iron-clad compared to the private sector. Anyone who suggests otherwise is misinformed or not telling the truth.
Tight budgets ‘will make it increasingly challenging for the Federal government to keep pace with [the] private sector, especially in hard to recruit fields, both in terms of pay and in areas like training.’
For years, the notion that working for the Federal government is a sacrifice made by the best and brightest who could be wildly successful in the private sector has been perpetuated within the culture of the Federal work force. People will cherry pick salary figures to support how downtrodden the Federal employee is compared to counterparts in private industry. These comparisons always fail to mention the incredibly generous benefits and leave packages federal employees receive. How many times have you heard that a Federal worker with 15 years of service earns one day of vacation and half a day of sick leave every two weeks? Probably not often. And I suspect you would be hard pressed to find many private sector jobs with similar perks.
Ultimately, debating the relative challenge of competing for employees with the private sector is a distraction from the real issue. We should be debating whether a Federal employee is being paid to do a job that is legitimately within the role of the Federal government. Where the work is necessary to execute the Constitutionally mandated role of the Federal government, we should absolutely pay employees competitively according to their skills and expertise. Where it’s not, we should be asking ourselves why we are paying them at all.