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Picking up slack in the Foreign Service

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; 8:57 AM

Federal Diary readers have a lot to say. Occasionally, we print their letters, including these:

I would like to add information to your article on the State Department's denial of employment in the Foreign Service to people with medical conditions or disabilities. If the State Department and other Foreign Service agencies employed people who had special medical conditions, those people would most likely be assigned to the better-equipped countries in Europe, Canada, etc., during the course of a 20- to 30-year career.

Foreign Service agencies try to balance assignments, a difficult hardship or dangerous post, followed by a better assignment. Employing people with special medical needs would put those people at risk (depending upon where they were assigned) and would be unfair as "available" FS officers would have to pick up the slack at hardship posts over and over again.

- Ingrid Peters, retired Foreign Service, Fredericksburg

Medical disparity

Health insurance for federal employees always is a hot topic.

I saw the article regarding the health insurance premiums for government retirees. I wish you had put a note at the end indicating that the majority of the private sector [does] not get cheap early-retiree, much less regular-retiree health insurance. That is why most of us have to work until age 65 so we can get regular Medicare and then spend our money on supplemental health insurance. Life outside the Beltway is a little different. Kevin Harris, Staunton, Va. How does our government really think folks are going to keep up with this increase every year of health insurance and everything else? This year the pay increase is going to be less than the previous increases. For those working, it is getting to the point of not being able to afford any type of insurance along with all the other things that need to be paid monthly: food, housing, clothing and education. At the same time folks are still out of work or have gotten jobs and still are not able to meet ends, even with two working folks in a household. Help!

- B. Evans, Washington

Counting the contractors

The Republicans and The Post are publishing lots of numbers about "how many people work for the federal government."

Whatever numbers are used, they fail to provide the public with an accurate story. The real numbers should relate to how many are being paid to work for the government.

As an example, the Energy Department used to have about 5,000 feds. However, the 10 National Labs have somewhere between [3,000 and 5,000] each who have been paid by the U.S. for the past 50 years but do not show up as feds. DOD employs thousands of full-time workers to support our military, but since they are "technically" contract workers, they are not counted. Many of them have a full career to retirement with their pay coming from government checks to their employer.

It would be refreshing if the Congress would have each government entity report the number of full-time equivalent people it supported from all of its appropriations (not just its federal payroll).

- Lloyd Grable, McLean, ex-HR Navy and Energy departments

Skills and experience

As you might expect, The Heritage Foundation disagreed with John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, when he said the conservative think tank has a "misinformation campaign" regarding federal pay.

Regarding your column, "Dissatisfaction in federal employee pay sign of disconnect:" Heritage Foundation research shows federal workers earn significantly more than private sector workers with comparable skills.

Most academic economists, regardless of politics, agree federal workers enjoy a substantial wage premium.

The authoritative Handbook of Labor Economics, surveying the extant literature, describes the federal premium in cash wages as between 10 percent and 20 percent. Heritage followed established methods for analyzing pay differences between government and private sector workers.

Ignoring this evidence, government and union representatives quoted in your column attack our findings by relying on a survey that examines job descriptions. But federal workers tend to be less skilled within an occupation level - a senior accountant may qualify only as a junior accountant in the private sector. So economists look at skills and experience, not just official duties.

- William W. Beach, director, Center for Data Analysis, The Heritage Foundation

Note: As I reported in February, federal budget documents say 20 percent of federal workers have a master's, professional or doctoral degree, compared with 13 percent in the private sector, and 51 percent of federal employees have a college degree, while only 35 percent of private sector workers do.

Links to columns referred to in this article can be found with this column at www.washingtonpost.com/fedpag.

federaldiary@washpost.com

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