Again and again President Obama has been asking all Americans to sacrifice during this season of economic hardship. But the president’s call apparently does not extend to federal employees. At a time when the private sector is being ravaged by layoffs, pay cuts, and benefits loss, the federal government has embarked on a hiring spree. Even as the country’s unemployment soars toward double digits, our government is handing out tens of thousands of jobs each month.
While the private sector shed 611,000 positions last month, the ranks of federal employees swelled by 66,000 new hires in April. The current federal civilian workforce currently stands at nearly 2 million (not counting the US Postal Service and military), which makes the federal government the largest employer in the United States. And given the president’s ambitious agenda, the government will inevitably continue its dramatic growth in the months and years ahead. Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group whose goal is to expand the ranks of government employees, recently stated the obvious when he said, “There's no doubt in my mind that if the Obama administration is going to get done what it set out to do, it's going to need more federal workers to do it.” It is not clear at this point exactly how many, because the Obama administration has yet to release its precise plans. The Partnership for Public Service estimates that the number will be around 600,000 through the end of the president’s current term, but the tally will likely be higher, especially given the president’s preference for turning government contractors into permanent employees.
By any measure, the new army of hires will receive handsome compensation. The average salary of a federal worker in 2007 was $77,143. This was more than 60 percent higher than the average in the private sector, which stood at $48,035. When the benefits are added, the total compensation of an average federal worker comes to an eye-popping $116,450. This is more than twice the private sector average.
The fact that not even half of all federal employees have a college degree makes the figure even more startling. That a workforce with such an undistinguished education profile is compensated on average close to one hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year is truly remarkable. One can only think of only two other industries where people with relatively scant academic credentials average well over a hundred thousand – professional sports and entertainment.
The Wall Street Journal points out that the growing disparity in income between the federal and private sectors is a result of long-term trends. While in 1950 the average federal employee received $1.19 in compensation for every dollar the average employee earned in the private sector, the number expanded to $1.51 in 1990, and today it stands at $2. Notably, the differential grew at an increased rate during the Bush years. From 2000 to 2005, federal pay rose by 38 percent, nearly triple the 14 percent wage rise in the private sector. Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute calls this the Bush Bounce, noting that “the Bush administration has caved into federal union demands for expanded pay year after year.”
Unbelievably, the union bosses still regularly complain that government employees are underpaid. On the website of The American Association of Federal Employees, the 600,000 strong union which caters to the federal workforce we read:
“The morale of the greatest civil service in the world is at risk because of the paltry pay raise for federal employees proposed by the Administration.”
But as Chris Edwards points out, one of the most accurate measures of employee satisfaction is the rate at which workers voluntarily quit their jobs. That number is very low among federal bureaucrats, only one fourth of what it is in the private sector. This means that government employees are far more content in their jobs than their private sector counterparts.
This should not surprise given the working conditions they enjoy. It has been often observed and remarked that work in the federal bureaucracy is generally far less demanding and stressful than in the private sector. The not-too-taxing work regimen comes with the best set of benefits to be had in any industry.
At this time when many companies are either cutting or reducing health care benefits for their workers and their families, we learn from the government’s website that, “Federal employees, retirees and their survivors enjoy the widest selection of health plans in the country.” Notice that these health programs continue not only throughout beneficiaries’ retirement but also after their death. In contrast, almost 40 percent of workers in the private sector lack adequate health care coverage.
Chris Edwards of Cato sums up the employment conditions of federal personnel in this way:
“Federal workers typically have generous holiday and vacation schedules, flexible work hours, training options, incentive awards, excessive disability benefits, flexible spending accounts, union protections, and a usually more relaxed pace of work than private work.”
Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal observed that, “High-paying federal jobs are so coveted that they are now like rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan: Once you've got one, you hold on to it for life.”
Federal employees enjoy unparalleled job security, since tough economic conditions do not adversely affect the size of the government’s workforce. Never has this been more evident than today when during the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression the government is hiring at an accelerated rate. And once in the job, it is almost impossible to earn a dismissal. According to statistics, only one in 5000 federal workers are dismissed for cause. There have been cases where wayward employees who were fired were later reinstated upon filling one kind lawsuit or another. The Wall Journal notes that a federal job “is the closest thing to a lifetime sinecure in America.”
It is a paradox that even as they are being battered by the unfolding economic crisis, private sector employees are forced to support a rapidly growing federal workforce. To make that paradox even more glaring, they are forced to do this at twice the rate of their own compensation. In light of the economic hardship that is ravaging the private sector, is this not high time for President Obama to finally ask the vast army of federal employees to tighten their belts also?