Federal employees, their organizations and sympathetic members of Congress for many years have pointed to figures calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that federal pay on average lags behind the private sector’s. In recent years that reported gap has reached the 35 percent range on average, with the most ardent advocates of federal workers arguing that even that number is artificially low.
However, outside organizations have used different sets of data and different methods to analyze them, in concluding that federal workers actually are overpaid on average—and that the gap in their favor is even larger if the value of benefits is considered.
Asked to act as a tiebreaker, the Government Accountability Office essentially concluded only that both sides have a point. The also nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has concluded in separate reports in recent years that pay overall is about comparable, although finding an advantage for federal employees with lower levels of education and a disadvantage for those with higher levels.
One result has been a stalemate over pay that led to three years of frozen salary rates, in 2011-2013, and only nominal raises in the 1-2 percent range in the years afterward.
The fiscal conservatives who are the most vocal advocates of limits on raises also generally prefer a stronger pay for performance element in salaries. That idea was tried not long ago, however, and without much success, at the Defense and Homeland Security departments.
Gaining enactment of fundamental reforms – even if all sides whole-heartedly committed to making the effort – could be a long and difficult process involving basic issues such as the government’s difficulties in evaluating performance fairly against standards that both employees and management agree on.
Federal Pay Systems
The general schedule salary system for white collar federal employees is what is generally referred to the “civil service” pay system even though it now covers only just more than half of the workforce. The wage system for blue collar employees is the next largest while numerous other special salary systems make up the rest.
Separate salary systems are maintained for Senior Executive Service members, the U.S. Postal Service, the Foreign Service, law enforcement officers, most medical personnel of the Veterans Health Administration and high-level officials including administrative law judges, Board of Contract Appeal members, and certain senior professional employees.
Presidential appointees are paid under the Executive Schedule system while federal judges and members of Congress also have separate pay schedules.