Dissatisfaction in federal employee pay sign of disconnect

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 8:32 PM

Like the late bug-eyed comic Rodney Dangerfield, federal employees sometimes get no respect.

The Washington Post poll published in Monday's paper reflects that.

Among those who said they had contact with a federal employee, a whopping 73 percent said the worker did a good job, yet 52 percent of everyone surveyed said federal employees are overpaid. How can that be?

Another thing, if satisfaction with Frankie and Flo Fed is so high, then how can 49 percent of respondents say Uncle Sam's staff doesn't work as hard as private sector workers?

And despite officials figures showing federal work in general pays 22 percent less than private sector jobs, 75 percent say federal workers get better pay and benefits.

John Berry, director of the Officer of Personnel Management, was steaming over that last point.

He said he was frustrated that "the Heritage and Cato misinformation campaign has obviously gained traction." The two Washington, D.C., think tanks have produced widely discussed reports indicating that federal workers are paid too much. A "pretty prolonged misinformation campaign over the last six month leading up to this," he said, "has worked."

His words were echoed by union leaders. Said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees: "If you tell people the same lies enough times, eventually they will start to believe them. Federal workers are not overpaid; they make significantly less than those doing the same work in the private sector. In fact, President Bush concurred with this assessment in each of his years in office. But some will not let facts get in the way of a good talking point."

Added Matthew S. Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers: "Normally one would think that scapegoating dedicated federal workers who have dedicated careers to serving the American public would be beyond reproach. However, perceived political gain at the expense of dedicated public servants is more important to the GOP leadership."

Before the polling results were released, I asked President Obama about complaints that federal employees are overpaid. His reaction was more measured than Berry's or the union leaders', perhaps because they awoke to a headline questioning the work ethic of federal employees.

"Well, I've had my team look at this, and the data we get back indicates that high-skilled workers in government are slightly underpaid; lower-skilled workers are slightly overpaid, relative to the private sector," Obama said in a Friday meeting with the Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists.

He attributed that, in part, to the unionization of federal workers. Federal unions, however, do not bargain over wages, as private sector unions do. But federal unions can play a powerful role with Congress and the White House, where the final pay decisions are made.

The recession and the continuing dour mood of the country certainly play a role in the disconnect between the praise federal workers get for providing services and the view they are overpaid.

Uncle Sam provides good, steady employment with decent wages and very good benefits and job security. With the official unemployment rate approaching 10 percent, the loss of homes and the increase of poverty rates - and all of this happening during an election year - perhaps there should be no surprise that federal workers, particularly now, would be an easy target.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the top Republican on the House federal workforce subcommittee, acknowledged that most federal workers do a good job, but he said "there is a resentment" over federal pay levels.

"It doesn't seem like we're doing more with less and that's what people are looking for," he said. "That's the disconnect, and that leads to the perception that federal workers are overpaid, and some of them are, I really do believe that."

Chaffetz, who likely would become chairman of the subcommittee and a very powerful player in federal workforce matters if the Republicans win the House next month, favors a 10 percent cut in the federal payroll. But he generally would exempt the biggest spenders - defense, veterans programs and security - from that, which in effect would mean all other agencies would take a huge hit.

Chaffetz praised Obama's plan, repeated during the Trotter briefing, to find government savings that would cut spending by 5 percent.

"Hallelujah. Sign me up. Let's do it," Chaffetz said. But Congress, he complained, "is not making those tough decisions."

But the tough decisions Obama and Chaffetz would make probably aren't the same. The congressman seems much more willing to entertain the idea of cutting federal pay and laying off federal workers "where it is warranted."

Obama gave no indication he favors cutting pay or reducing the federal workforce. But he did say "if that's the only way to achieve the savings, then we've got to make some decisions about what that means in terms of services, because there are consequences."

Those are services Americans don't want to do without, even as they complain about the people providing them.

Go figure.

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