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Groups Claim Data on Federal Employees' Salaries is Misleading

Groups Claim Data on Federal Employees' Salaries is Misleading

Alex M. Parker | Government Executive

December 16, 2009

Federal employee groups on Monday questioned the accuracy of a recent news report that claimed from 2007 to 2009 the number of government workers earning more than $100,000 per year spiked.

Based on an analysis of federal data, a Dec. 10 USA Today story, said the number of federal workers earning more than $100,000 per year rose from 14 percent in December 2007 to 19 percent in June 2009. The article attributed several workforce trends, including the easing of federal pay caps, higher salaries at the Pentagon because of its pay-for-performance system and generous annual raises from Congress.

According to federal workforce advocates, the numbers are misleading. “The data presented by USA Today is incomplete in many ways,” Jessica Klement, legislative director for the Federal Managers Association, wrote in an e-mail. She said the data did not indicate how or why federal employees earned those salaries, and taken in context, the figures aren’t as alarming as they seem at first glance.

“Overall, according to the data, more than 75 percent of federal employees make less than $100,000,” said Klement. “This is hardly cause for concern.”

The information is from the Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope, an online database of federal employment data.

“Numbers like this, taken on their face, without any knowledge of the kind of skills and capabilities that these employees represent, can be very easy [to use] to enrage people,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents many executives earning more than $100,000 per year.

John Palguta, vice president of policy of the Partnership for Public Service, said the figures could be attributed to increased hires at the Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs departments. Because of the tasks some of those employees perform — including medical and sophisticated technology work — they earn higher salaries than the general population.

“Increased hiring of those agencies is very understandable, and I think there would be public outrage if there were not increased hiring,” Palguta said. “If you look at history, government has always increased in size during times of stress to the country. And in times of relative peace and prosperity, it goes down.”

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, sent a letter to USA Today criticizing the article and claiming it doesn’t measure the pay between similar jobs in the public and private sectors. She noted the most recent Federal Salary Council report put the gap between private and public sector employees at 26 percent.

“The USA Today article also disappoints by failing to recognize the growth in the number of highly paid political appointees and senior managers at the federal level and the far greater degree of professional jobs performed by the men and women of the federal workforce when contrasted with the private sector,” Kelley said in a statement.

Dennis Cauchon, the USA Today reporter who wrote the piece, said his data showed that hiring increases and higher-paid federal employees were spread across the government and couldn’t be attributed to surges in particular departments.

“It’s several personnel policies and trends that inherently favor highly paid employees,” he said.

Cauchon said he hasn’t received any phone calls about the story. As of Monday afternoon, the story had generated more than 1,700 online comments.

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