The Washington Post, the newspaper of record in this federal city and whose suburbs I inhabit decided to poll the country. The subject: me, or more specifically, the 1.9 million employees of Uncle Sam, and whether Joe and Jane Citizen thought we were overpaid and under qualified for our jobs. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the country does not have much good to say about us. Fifty two percent of Americans surveyed said people like me were overpaid, while only 33 percent thought we were paid the right amount. More than a third of those surveyed thought we were less qualified than those with similar positions in the private sectors.
Opinions, of course, may or may not have a basis in fact, but particularly in a hurting economy, it’s understandable that so many would feel miffed at us feds. After all, our jobs are very secure and come with a pension component (although it is significantly less for those hired since 1984). We can select from a broad cafeteria plan of health insurers and Uncle Sam will pick up somewhere between half and two thirds of our premium. We even have 401-Ks or their equivalent, something called the Thrift Saving Plan.
With nearly thirty years as a civil servant, I’ve seen this show before. It often peaks before elections when Republicans are trying to get back in power. Federal employees make easy targets. It’s not like we are likely to dissent, at least not very much, and we certainly cannot go on strike, as it is illegal. So we make for convenient piñatas right before important elections. Republicans are making snarling noises about cutting our inflated salaries once they control Congress again.
In fact, few in the private sector even consider federal employment, in spite of the obvious benefits. Why? Well, federal employment has an undeserved reputation for not being meaningful work. Citizens seem to understand that when you join the civil service no matter how much talent you have, your salary will be limited by law. So why try harder when recognition will come mostly in the form of pats on the back, rather than cash in the pocket?
There is no question that President Obama lives quite comfortably on his $400,000 a year salary. Only four elected officials make more than $200,000 a year, including the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. This is obviously not small change, but with a 1.9 million federal workforce, that says a lot. The Senior Executive Service consists of about a few thousand high level managers, often with political appointments, who earn about $146,000 to $200,000 a year. As a percent of the total workforce though, the SES is tiny.
The “rank and file” civil service workforce consists of people like me, usually attached to the General Schedule. Under the General Schedule, the complexity and responsibility of your work is assessed at a grade somewhere between GS-1 and GS-15. The median grade is probably close to a GS-11. A person at the GS-11 level typically has a college degree along with at least several years of specialized experience. Within each grade, there are ten steps, and steps bring a higher salary (but not a promotion) based on satisfactory performance. You never get above a Step 10. A GS-11 Step 5 makes about $57,000 a year, but the actual amount depends on the area where your job is located. Obviously the cost of living in Washington D.C. is a lot higher than in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A GS-11 Step 5 in the Washington D.C. region is making about $71,000 a year.
Since the public thinks we are so overpaid, you would think the competition would be keen for most jobs. In some cases, there are hundreds of applicants, but often the list of qualified candidates is small. Sometimes there are no qualified applicants at all! This is because many jobs are quite specialized. For example, where do you go to find new hires for inspectors for the Transportation Safety Board? Not a whole lot of us can piece together the causes of transportation accidents. There are many jobs like this in the federal government. There are also many jobs like mine in the computer and information technology area. So it’s easier for me as a supervisor to find qualified applicants.
After 28 years, I have progressed from a GS-4 clerk typist to a GS-14, one step below the highest rank in the civil service. In the interim, I acquired a ton of experience, lots of sterling performance reviews and a master’s degree in Software Systems Engineering from George Mason University. My salary is in the six-figure range. Am I overpaid? You be the judge.
I am responsible for a large, real-time web site. We serve critical near real-time data, as well as a wealth of historical data used in studies and analyses, from redundant hosting centers so our system never goes down. Flood forecasts are developed from our data and many decisions are made as well that can save lives and minimize property damage. Data constantly streams in and is put on the web and all of it has to be both timely and as accurate as possible. In a typical month the site I manage gets thirty to 50 million successful requests. My employees and me must make sure our frequently queried real-time data is available 24/7/365, including during major storms. I have four employees who report directly to me, and five others whose time I buy, either part time or full time. I make more than $120,000 a year, but less that $130,000 a year. We run the whole operation for about $1.3 million dollars a year. Am I overpaid?
Or take my boss, a program manager. She is a GS-15, the highest you can go in the civil service. She manages twenty to thirty people nationwide, has overall responsibility for her entire program, deals with innumerable reporting requirements, large customer communities with diverse needs, has a fistful of certifications that demonstrate her competency in areas like project management and manages her whole program, worth about $6 million a year. I don’t know her salary, but it is probably between $140,000 and $150,000 a year. Is she overpaid? Could it be that a comparable job in the private sector with this level of visibility and responsibility would pay better? It would not surprise me. I suspect she is underpaid.
Or what about a new employee I recently hired? She hesitated to take the position when offered. Why? It did not pay enough. That’s right, she made quite a bit more in the private sector than she would if she joined the public sector because she would have started as a Step 1. However, I was impressed enough with her qualifications to go through a convoluted process so the government could just match salary in the private sector. Is she overpaid too? That does not seem likely. Now I could have thought like a Republican. I could have saved the government money by hiring someone less competent and maybe at a lower grade. Would this have been a smart thing to do given the complexity of the system I manage and its critical nature? Or would it have been pennywise and pound foolish to do so?
The truth is, at least here in the Washington metropolitan area, it is hard to convince any candidate who does not already live here to take a position. Why? Because of the cost of living, but also because of other negatives, like the Washington area’s legendary traffic jams. If you are lucky enough to work eight-hour days, you often have to tack on another two hours or more for commuting every day. Even GS-15s like my boss live modestly. $140,000 is certainly a lot of money in Sioux Falls, South Dakota but not in Reston, Virginia. If you lust after a good single family house in a respectable neighborhood a few miles from work then be prepared to pay at least $500,000 for the privilege, and this price is after the recent decline in home prices.
I do not think that civil servants are overpaid; I think we are fairly compensated. A GS-11 Step 5, my hypothetical “average” civil servant, doubtless depends on a spouse’s income, or is living a very modest lifestyle because $71,000 is not enough income to purchase even a townhouse around here, unless you want to drive two hours to get home. I am certainly grateful for the steady income, in good economic times or bad, as well as our benefits, which twenty years ago were seen as good, but due to the decline in many private industry benefits, now look excellent. Nevertheless, I also know no matter how innovative and creative I am, I cannot be a public servant and make $200,000 a year. The same is not true in the private sector. You can ascend to salary levels as high as your talent takes you. Any performance bonus I get is likely to be in the 1.5% to 3% of salary range, if I earn anything at all. It certainly helps pay some bills and an indulgence or two, but it won’t make me independently wealthy.
So some perspective please. If federal salaries seem higher than the median private industry salary, it’s not necessarily because we are overpaid. It is because the government does not need the equivalent of a lot of busboys, retail workers, truck drivers and hotel maids on its payroll. (Because that kind of work is very generalized, it is typically outsourced.) Most federal jobs require rather specialized skills and the vast majority of us have bachelors or graduate degrees because we need that level of education to perform competently in our jobs.
If you are unhappy with the way government is run, look to policymakers. They decide what government shall be. My job is to deliver it and I am glad to do so at a fair wage and to the maximum extent of my talents.