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New Post poll finds negativity toward federal workers

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By Lisa Rein and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 18, 2010; 12:57 AM

More than half of Americans say they think that federal workers are overpaid for the work they do, and more than a third think they are less qualified than those working in the private sector, according to a Washington Post poll.

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Half also say the men and women who keep the government running do not work as hard as employees at private companies.

The critical views of federal workers - just one in seven of whom works in the D.C. area - echo the anti-Washington sentiment roiling the midterm elections, as some Americans lose confidence in their government to solve the country's problems.

Still, of those who have interacted with a federal agency employee, three in four report that the experience was positive. In addition, the survey revealed a generation gap, with younger Americans more likely to give federal civil servants positive reviews.

The strong sentiments give ammunition to both defenders and critics of the country's 1.9 million-member federal workforce in what has become a bitter debate on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail over the size and value of the federal bureaucracy.

The survey shows public views of federal workers deeply split along party lines, with Republicans the most apt to see a disconnect between government pay and that in the private sector. Republicans' more negative views in the poll reflect the party's souring view of government in general. Fully 80 percent of Republicans say federal priorities are misplaced, in a recent study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University on Americans' views of the role of government.

In the new Post survey, 52 percent of Americans think that federal civil servants are paid too much, a view held by nearly two in three Republicans and about seven in 10 conservatives. Far fewer Democrats, independents, liberals and moderates hold this opinion. Overall, among Americans, one in 10 of those polled say federal workers should be better compensated.

Three-quarters of those surveyed say they think federal workers are paid more and get better benefits than their counterparts outside government, an increase of seven percentage points from a Post-ABC poll conducted in 1982, when the country also struggled in a recession.

Republicans hoping to take over Congress in the midterm elections next month have been tapping into these sentiments on the campaign trail. They have portrayed civil servants as proxies for a government that the party views as unwieldy, debt-ridden and an unnecessary intrusion into Americans' everyday lives as the country continues to lose tens of thousands of jobs a month.

Government personnel officials say they are refining the way they determine the salaries of a workforce that performs thousands of jobs, from park rangers earning $21 an hour in Monticello, Utah, to NASA scientists who make $123,758 at the agency's Washington headquarters.

It's a highly educated, largely unionized group whose pay is based on experience and what similar jobs in the private sector fetch. The government says it is hard to compare average public and private salaries, since so many jobs outside government are in low-paying service industries, whereas government workers tend to be more skilled.

President Obama, speaking to a group of black columnists on Friday, said the workforce will be "part of the overall conversation" when his administration takes up the federal budget next year. He said that he will not rule out furloughs and that agencies might need to shrink by keeping vacancies open. He has asked agencies to develop plans for cutting budgets by 5 percent.


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