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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Recession’s a bad time for federal wages to rise

Previous editorials have examined the payroll impact on local and state budgets, but what about the federal government? It’s even worse. But because the feds don’t have to produce annual balanced budgets, the problem is easier to disguise. Mayors and governors have to face the issue head-on. Presidents and members of Congress do not, because they can lift the debt ceiling and put employees’ raises on the national credit card.

USA Today recently examined federal pay and benefits against the backdrop of the recession and general economic decline. While 7.3 million jobs were lost in the private sector from December 2007 to June 2009, federal pay raises and hiring have increased. Some findings:

The number of federal workers making $100,000 or more (before overtime and bonuses) jumped from 14 percent to 19 percent.

Defense Department civilian employees earning $150,000 or more a year increased from 1,868 to 10,100.

The Transportation Department went from one employee earning more than $170,000 to 1,690 people making that much.

President George W. Bush and Congress approved an across-the-board 3 percent raise in January 2008 and a 3.9 percent boost the following January. President Barack Obama is calling for 2 percent raises for 2010. All of this is on top of the “step” increases of 1.5 percent for most workers.

This salary transformation occurred as the country dealt with the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. But when looking at federal pay and hiring, it’s as if it never happened.

The average federal worker makes $71,206 annually. In the private sector, it’s $40,033. It’s true that minimum-wage jobs can deflate the private sector average, but it’s also true that millionaires and billionaires can inflate it.

Federal workers have health care packages that only the richest corporations can deliver. According to the Los Angeles Times, federal workers have a wide array of choices, including dental and vision coverage, and there is no lifetime cap on spending.

Federal workers can make the same argument as state and local workers: It took many years to reach a nice salary, and increased compensation brings in better talent. In short, they’ve earned it. But are they prepared to say that private-sector workers who have been laid off or had their pay slashed and benefits diluted deserved their fates?

The bottom line is that the nation cannot afford to continue inoculating federal workers from budgetary crises and general economic malaise. Money saved on salaries and benefits could be sent to states to rescue programs for the most vulnerable citizens or to address the budget deficit. Those are just two examples, and both would be sounder decisions than pretending compensation is a budgetary freebie.

If the feds had to balance the budget, this would be clear.

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