About 77,000 federal employees across the United States — including lawyers, air traffic controllers, medical personnel and information technology specialists — had higher salaries in 2009 than the governors of the states they worked in, a new report shows.
The data from the Congressional Research Service could add fuel to a debate on Capitol Hill about whether the salaries and benefits of federal workers are too high compared with their counterparts in the private sector. The study was first reported by the Washington Times.
The information was requested by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has argued that federal workers should be paid less as the government seeks ways to rein in its deficit.
The research service reviewed civilian salary data in the executive branch provided by the Office of Personnel Management for 2009, the last year available. Of the 77,057 federal workers who make more than the governors of their states, 18,351 were physicians, the highest percentage. Air traffic controllers came in second at 5,170. The government has about 2 million employees.
Colorado topped the list with 10,875 people making more than Gov. Bill Ritter, whose pay was $90,000. In Maryland, 7,283 civil servants made more than Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was paid $150,000. Virginia had 606 federal workers who took home more than Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, whose salary was $175,000. Most of the 77,000 making more than governors are professionals.
“Federal employees deserve to be paid adequately, and no one would argue against paying skilled engineers or top-notch doctors and nurses to care for wounded soldiers and veterans,” Becky Bernhardt, a spokeswoman for Coburn, said in a statement. “It seems to defy explanation, however, why recreation planners, an interior designer and many other public servants are receiving higher salaries than state governors when our nation is $14 trillion in debt and many taxpayers are struggling to pay their mortgage and make ends meet.”
A spokeswoman for the National Governors Association declined to comment on the survey.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress and state legislatures, along with think tanks and others, have argued for months over who is paid more: federal workers or those at private companies. Critics of the federal workforce say public workers make more, in part because their benefits are often better than their private-sector counterparts. Defenders say many mid- and high-level government workers could make far more in the private sector.
The report does not provide federal workers’ individual salaries. It does not account for labor and living costs among states, which can affect federal pay, or take into account education levels and years of experience. Hard-to-fill jobs that might draw higher salaries in some states than in others also are not distinguished.
An official with the largest union of federal workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, said politicians would be better off scrutinizing the salaries of federal contractors.
“So the government’s paying $700,000 and more for contractor salaries, and Senator Coburn worries about the pay of physicians who care for wounded soldiers?” Beth Moten, the union’s legislative and political director, said in a statement. She noted that defense contractors can be reimbursed up to $693,000 from the government toward the salaries of their top five executives and even more for some employees doing government work.
“If those governors want to make more money, they should either become contractors or try applying to medical school,” Moten said.
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the salaries of most of the employees cited by the research service “pale by comparison to those in similar positions in the private sector.”
The report also was criticized by Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank promoting a change to federal pensions that would require employees to contribute more to their accounts. “It’s a cheap shot,” senior fellow David Kendall said of Coburn’s effort to draw comparisons between the pay of governors and federal workers.
“The salaries of governors are never close to Wall Street salaries,” he said. “There are some highly skilled federal employees who make money, just like some people in the private sector.”