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Study to settle public-private pay debate still a ways off

Emily Long | Government Executive

August 16, 2010

A new analysis claiming federal employees earn twice as much as their private sector counterparts is fueling the debate over pay disparities, but a comprehensive study on the issue still could be a while in coming.

The analysis, conducted by USA Today, found that federal employees earned an average of $123,049 in pay and benefits in 2009 while private sector workers made $61,051. The report, which was based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, also revealed that the pay gap between federal and private sector employees has doubled in the past decade.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, has said part of the challenge with pay-related discussions is different groups have different metrics and methods of making public-private comparisons, and each wants to defend its approach as the most reliable. Berry in June announced he had asked statisticians from OPM, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and “neutral parties” such as the Administrative Conference of the United States and National Academy of Public Administration to develop a formula to compare federal and private sector pay that would be more universally accepted.

Edmund Byrnes, a spokesman for OPM, said the study still is being developed and he couldn’t provide any further detail.

The study could eliminate what union leaders and federal observers have deemed “apples-to-oranges” comparisons of federal and private sector pay, which leave out factors like job function, skill level, age and location. Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said USA Today’s analysis was a “misuse of the information.”

“If you’re trying to decide how much you need to pay to get a lawyer at the [Securities and Exchange Commission], or an inspector for the [former Minerals Management Service] to inspect rigs, you have to be looking at job occupation [and] geography, because labor markets are sensitive to geographic location, experience and skill within that occupation group,” he said. "If you’re trying to determine the market for a particular job and talent, you need that information … what we have now is these giant comparisons of the private sector and public sector.

“I believe that’s John Berry’s intent, and it makes a lot of sense. We need to understand a lot more about the cost of talent in government,” Stier added, though he said he didn’t think much progress has been made on the OPM study.

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