Better Off as a Bureaucrat

Oct. 5, 2009
Shortly after the Age of Dinosaurs, I started out in my professional career as a federal employee.

Shortly after the Age of Dinosaurs, I started out in my professional career as a federal employee. One of the observations I had back then was about the lackadaisical way I saw bureaucrats spend money. I figured most taxpayers would be outraged at the shenanigans that went on day-to-day if they ever came to light.

I was reminded of all this recently as I read that hundreds of federal officials are earning more than $190,000 annually through the misapplication of a program designed to retain a handful of top-level scientists. The program, known as Title 42, was set up to attract and keep a few key individuals in the health sciences. Now, according to a Wall Street Journal article, about 2,000 Dept. of Health and Human Services officials are covered by the program, with 378 of them earning more than $191,000. The EPA pays 11 people according to the same program; the FDA, about 200.

But salary largess is not confined to upper-level civil servants. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, federal workers have an average compensation more than double that of their private sector counterparts. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9 million federal workers was $79,197, compared with an average $49,935 for workers in the private sector. And this is without counting benefits. Factoring those in brings average federal-worker compensation to $119,982; for the private sector, the average comes only to $59,909.

What is interesting about the figure for federal workers is that it exceeds the average compensation for several other industries often thought of as having highly educated workforces, including computer-systems design, computer manufacturing, chemical products, information processing, and even legal services. And wages for federal workers have risen faster in recent years than have those for most in the private sector. In all, federal civilians had the fifth-highest average increase in compensation among 72 industries in the last eight years. Federal employees saw their pay go up an average of 57% in that time period, compared with just a 31% average rise in the private sector.

Having been a federal employee myself once upon a time, I can explain exactly how compensation can grow so quickly. Federal pay schedules rise every year regardless of how the economy does. Moreover, federal workers typically get regular promotions based on time in grade rather than on performance.

Of course, one of the biggest benefits of government employment has nothing to do with compensation. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the rate of layoffs and firings in the federal workforce is just one-quarter that for the private sector. So it is no surprise that the rate of voluntary resignations from government positions is likewise about a quarter that of the private sector.

With this kind of high employee retention rate, it is interesting indeed that one justification for Title 42 and its supercharged salary structure was that it would keep people from defecting to private-sector jobs. Evidence is that defections are not a problem. In many cases, people are better off as government bureaucrats.

But there is one government action on salaries I’d be in favor of. In the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the Economy Act of 1933, which, among other things, cut the pay of civilian federal workers, including members of Congress. Now there’s an idea the American public would rally behind.

Leland Teschler, Editor

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