Go to Federal Community

Go to National


Filling In the Pay Gaps

By Mike Causey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 1997; Page D02

Statistical proof that Uncle Sam underpays workers 20 to 30 percent could be undermined -- or disappear altogether -- when the government broadens its annual survey of private-sector salaries.

Federal workers employed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics collect data used in government- vs.-industry pay comparisons. The numbers indicate a 20 to 30 percent gap between federal and private pay, with feds getting the smaller paychecks. Nobody questions the competence or integrity of the bureau. But many people outside government -- and even President Clinton, the ranking insider -- think the bureau needs to widen its wage study.

The Clinton administration has insisted from day one that the pay gap figures are "flawed" since they don't include many small firms, many jobs or the value of fringe benefits. The administration wants a "total compensation" comparison in which perks such as vacation, pensions, holidays and health insurance are factored into the pay packet. Most experts think that would make Uncle Sam look very competitive with even the best private companies -- and perhaps shrink or eliminate the pay gap.

Doubts about the gap are the reason the White House has proposed a series of pay freezes, or raises well below those promised under the 1990 pay law enacted under a Republican president and a Democrat- controlled Congress. That law proposed a series of dual annual pay raises (one national, the other a locality adjustment) each January until feds were getting wages close to private-sector rates.

The much-reduced raises feds have received under the Clinton administration (with the happy cooperation of a Republican-run Congress) haven't narrowed the pay gap. But if the measuring system is changed, that gap may disappear, and future raises could be even smaller.

A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office of federal vs. private pay concluded that the size of the pay gap depended on what factors were being considered. In a strict salary matchup of government vs. industry -- in jobs and firms selected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- Uncle Sam seemed a tightwad. But if other compensation factors were considered, and the base of industry firms and jobs were widened, the pay gap might disappear, the CBO said.

"For years critics have charged that federal surveys skewed . . . estimates of the gap between federal and nonfederal salaries upward because they failed to cover small firms, state and local governments and a sufficient variety of occupations," the CBO said.

While more small firms have been studied in recent years, the CBO says, the often lower salaries they pay aren't considered in making government-vs.-industry pay comparisons. The CBO says that critics still feel such studies are flawed because the Bureau of Labor Statistics "collects data only for jobs that correspond to detailed descriptions of jobs on its list [and thus] little data is collected from smaller, often lower-paying firms."

People who question the pay gap also say that the government suffers from "grade creep," because agencies allegedly promote workers only to give them raises to compensate for lower starting salaries in government. The CBO says that "partly in response" to criticism of the pay-setting system, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will adopt a variety of reforms aimed at having federal pay comparisons include more data from a greater variety of jobs and smaller firms. The CBO says the pay raise in 2000 will be the first one affected by "full implementation of the reforms."

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Co.

Back to the top


Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!