The commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, apparently caught between political policy makers and the findings of her staff, says her bureau has not officially challenged the data used by the Office of Personnel Management to justify a plan to cut and freeze federal salaries.
This column reported four weeks ago that BLS had questioned OPM's contention that job turnover in the government is less than 4 percent a year, compared with about 13 percent in the private sector. OPM said this was an indication that federal workers are content with their jobs and in many instances are overpaid.
In response to the column, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) wrote BLS Commissioner Janet L. Norwood asking for the bureau's official position on the matter. A week ago, Norwood wrote back and said the column "evidently mistook" information from a top BLS employe as being a "formal statement of bureau position."
BLS staffers had told Norwood they believed there were "serious definitional problems in comparing a quit rate for the federal government to a quit rate in manufacturing" industries.
The BLS staff report said turnover in telephone communications, the service-producing industry most like the federal government, is comparable to the quit rate in government. The report also said that some of the data OPM used was out of date, and that many of the firms counted in the turnover survey were small organizations where turnover is normally high.
OPM officials were furious when the column appeared, and felt the professional staff of the statistical agency was trying to undercut the OPM pay plan. That plan calls for cutting federal pay 5 percent, and then giving future pay raises only to workers in jobs or geographic areas where the government and industry turnover rate are similar.
Norwood discussed the situation with OPM's executive assistant director, Patrick J. Korten. Korten said the BLS report was an example of "nit-picking" by statisticians.
In her letter to Schroeder, who chairs the House Civil Service Subcommittee, Norwood said that the facts provided to The Washington Post were these:
* "The occupational mix of the federal government is markedly different from that in manufacturing."
* "The manufacturing universe measured by the BLS turnover survey of 1981 was composed of 325,000 establishments with an average of 60 employes. Voluntary movement of workers from one establishment to another was recorded as a quit.
"It appears that in the OPM study, employment changes between agencies, or large units within an agency, are not counted as quits."
* "BLS collected and published data for only one service producing industry, telephone communication. Monthly quit rates in that industry averaged 0.4 and 0.3 per 100 employes for 1980 and 1981, respectively. This industry probably has an occupational profile more similar to the federal government than manufacturing."
An aide to Schroeder said that "whether it is official or not," the BLS explanation "proves that OPM is mixing apples and oranges and getting something a lot less appetizing than applesauce.