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New Post poll finds negativity toward federal workers

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.

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.

But he added: "When I look at what our big budget-busters are, they tend to be things that most Americans think are really important, like Social Security, Medicare, defense, veterans affairs."

Federal unions, congressional Democrats and administration officials have characterized criticism of "faceless bureaucrats" as scapegoating.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest government union, acknowledged that the criticism of civil servants might stem partly from high U.S. unemployment.

"But this whole idea of 'I know somebody who doesn't work hard' - well, get the hell out of here," he said. "Honest to God, you can say the same thing in any industry."

The survey of 1,002 adults suggests that the administration faces a big challenge in turning around negative views, particularly in a potentially GOP-controlled Congress. GOP leaders have vowed to freeze proposed pay raises, furlough the civil service, fire workers who owe federal taxes and even shut down the government.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) the House minority whip, said his party's negative views of the workforce are rooted in the recession.

"Folks in the private sector feel that they are on the receiving end of a very tough economy . . . and their view is that federal employees enjoy job security irrespective of the recession," he said.

Nearly six in 10 Republicans say federal civil servants do not work as hard and nearly half say they are of lower quality than workers at private companies, both double-digit increases over 2001.

"Sure, there are some hard-working . . . federal people, but I feel like some of them don't earn their money, either," James Gillian, 72, of Gallatin, Tenn., said in a follow-up interview to the poll. A retired salesman for a paper company and a Republican, he said his observations about the workforce were rolled into his general sense that the federal government needs to scale back from having its "finger in everybody's pie."

"There's got to be a limit somewhere," he said.

Nevertheless, nearly half of Republicans would recommend a government job to a relative or close friend just graduating, compared with 70 percent of Democrats.

"Why not?" asked Nirmal Sandhu, 56, the father of two college students, who emigrated from India to Long Island in 1987. "Working in the federal government is a good job. For my kids, I think it would be great."

Sandhu, a registered Democrat, sells life insurance and does retirement planning for MetLife. He said that while civil servants may be well paid, their salaries do not compare with the pay of Wall Street executives.

"In the private sector, some of these people are making $50 million," he said. "Do they really need that?"

The poll shows that older adults tend to be more critical of the quality of federal employees. For example, 64 percent of those age 65 and older say federal workers are overpaid; those 30 and under said federal workers are paid the right amount or too little.

"I think for some people, you can't understand why people make so much money today when you remember when you did the same job for what seemed like an infinitesimal amount years ago," said John Dale, 76, a registered Democrat who spent his career as a public school teacher and principal in Aurora, Colo. He used to think that federal workers were paid too much, but his view has changed. "Now I believe that you get what you pay for."

African Americans are far more sympathetic to civil servants than are whites, with three-quarters saying they would like to see a young person close to them pursue a career in government and a third rating government workers as better than private-sector ones.

Overall in the survey, among those who have had contact with a federal agency employee, their review of that experience helps mold views of the bureaucracy:

Nearly two-thirds of those who say a federal employee gave them very good service think that most federal workers are fairly paid or underpaid.

For Janet Willis, an artist and grandmother from Monroe, Wash., experience with government runs deep: Her husband is a civil engineer in local government and she waded through a maze of Medicare and Medicaid forms and regulations as she cared for her dying mother.

"The bureaucracy is really hard for people to get through," said Willis, a registered Republican. "But the caseworkers and social workers are doing a really good job with what they've got." She described"people hired to do stuff that needs to get done" as "pretty hard workers."

The poll was conducted by telephone from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3 and included interviews with 1,002 randomly selected adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Polling director Jon Cohen, assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp and staff writer Joe Davison contributed to this report.

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