Complaining but not quitting: Federal workers choose security despite tepid job satisfaction

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A Pew Research Center poll in August of 3,000 Americans found that 54 percent of respondents think the federal government is “mostly corrupt,” compared with 31 percent who found federal workers “mostly honest.” An analysis by the Partnership for Public Service found that federal workers do not have particularly high opinions of their managers, giving their bosses at 27 large government agencies and departments a collective score of 54.9 on a scale of 1 to 100 for “effective leadership.”

“Federal employees are struggling with feeling empowered in their work and roughly half do not hold favorable views of their agency’s leaders,” the survey authors concluded.

Grim as the situation may appear for federal workers, it’s not exactly a picnic for their private-sector counterparts. A study conducted by Mr. Biggs and Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation shows that salaries and benefits have failed to keep pace with the compensation levels offered by the federal government.

When comparing the federal and private sector, “the private sector comes out ahead in almost every category of job satisfaction. Yet quit rates are far lower in the federal government,” Mr. Biggs said. “Something must explain these results, and a generous compensation package is likely to be part of it.”

Cutting back

The package isn’t as generous as it used to be. Congress voted in 2012 to hike the required pension contribution for newly hired federal employees from 0.8 percent to 3.1 percent of salary, although current employees were exempted from the increase.

In a letter and ad campaign, the American Federation of Government Employees “seeks to remind lawmakers that federal and postal employees are the only group of Americans who have personally sacrificed to help reduce the nation’s deficit.”

“You’ve got to look elsewhere for your cuts if you have to make them,” Jackie Simon, public policy director for the union, told the Huffington Post last month.

While federal employees have faced a pay freeze since mid-2010, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been earning more money. The freeze affects cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), not merit- or tenure-based pay increases under the so-called “step increases” in a General Schedule employee’s rate of basic pay, Mr. Richwine said.

“Anyone who gets a pay freeze is not going to be happy about it, but pay freezes are just in COLAs. You’re still going to get your step raises,” he said. “So some people have seen pay increases. You’d have to freeze that pay for quite a long time to have it comparable to the private sector.”

Public vs. private sectors

Making an apples-to-apples comparison of the lot of public- and private-sector workers turns out to be a challenging analytical task.

The Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog and research arm, surveyed a range of studies — including one by Mr. Richwine and Mr. Biggs — analyzing federal and private pay and benefit scales, and found they were all over the map on whether government workers made out better than their private-sector peers.

The comparisons also don’t hold across all agencies and all professions. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. could make far more than his $191,300 annual salary if he returns to private practice, but the private market for, say, a State Department historian or a Colorado forest ranger is far more limited. Several studies found that the pay-and-benefits boost for a federal worker with just a high school diploma was far larger than the premium a government lawyer or accountant might receive.

Reviewing the research, GAO analysts concluded: “The differences among the selected studies are such that comparing their results to help inform pay decisions is potentially problematic. Given the different approaches of the selected studies, their findings should not be taken in isolation as the answer to how federal pay and total compensation compares with other sectors.”

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