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Federal workers’ pay unhurt by recession

WASHINGTON – During Public Service Recognition Week earlier this month, hundreds of job seekers converged on the National Mall to learn about career opportunities in the federal government.

While economists don’t expect the private-sector job market to reach its pre-recession hiring levels until 2015 or later, the federal government, America’s largest employer, suffers no such recessionary hangover.

The full-time federal civilian work force – excluding postal service employees – is expected to top 2.1 million in fiscal year 2010, and more than 560,000 new workers will be hired in the next four years, said John Palguta, the vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

For a nation battered by layoffs, plant closings and an unemployment rate near 10 percent, Uncle Sam’s hiring largesse should be a source of hope and inspiration. However, 98 percent of working Americans aren’t federal employees, and many are wondering aloud why federal civil servants haven’t faced the wage freezes, layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts and hiring freezes that many in the general work force have endured.

“To the extent that the American people are tightening their belt, Washington should tighten its belt too,” said Brian Reidl, a research fellow in federal budget policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

That same logic prompted President Barack Obama, on his first full day in office, to freeze the pay of about 100 senior White House staffers who earn more than $100,000 a year.

It was a nice symbolic gesture. However, Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of “Downsizing the Government,” said the freeze should be extended to all federal civilian employees for the next several years, or at least until the economy recovers and private-sector wages improve.

After all, average compensation for federal civilian workers increased nearly twice as much as it did for the private sector from 2000 to 2008, federal data show. In fact, the average annual compensation for federal civilian workers – $119,982, including earnings and benefits – ranks seventh among 72 occupations, behind only high finance, energy and company management professions.

Then there are the benefits.

“Federal workers get a 401(k)-style plan, but they also get an old-fashioned defined-benefit pension plan with inflation protection,” Edwards said. “They also get health care benefits when they retire above and beyond Medicare. You just don’t see that kind of stuff in the private sector anymore, and I think the federal work force ought to reflect the private work force. It shouldn’t be an elite island separated from the rest of us.”

Palguta said some government compensation and staffing levels should be “readjusted,” both up and down. “But the rational and logical thing to do is to go in with a scalpel, not with a sledgehammer,” he said.


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